From the vast, shifting sand dunes of the Sahara to the rocky terrain of the Gobi, deserts are some of the most unique and awe-inspiring places on earth. They’ve fascinated us for centuries, and play an important role in how we obtain minerals such as oil, copper, iron and uranium.
They’re also home to unique and incredible wildlife, ranging from scorpions and snakes, to camels and cats. They find themselves nestled amongst incredible landforms such as arches, towering dunes and sacred sandstone monoliths.
In this blog post, we’ll explore some of the most famous and recognisable deserts around the world. Don’t forget to check out our general desert facts.
The Great Basin
Location: United States
Type: Cold desert and cold semi-arid (learn more about desert types)
Area: Around 190,000 square miles (492,000 square km)
The Great Basin desert is the largest desert in the United States, covering an area of 190,000 square miles. It was formed due to the formation of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west which created a rain shadow – cutting off moisture from the Pacific ocean. The Great Basin is classified as a cold desert due to its northerly position and high altitude which produces cold winters and warm summers. On average it receives around 10 inches of rain per year – most during the winter time as rain or snow.
The Great Basin desert consists mostly of high plateaus within which can be found broad valleys. During winter months temporary lakes called playas are formed which support plants and animals. In other places the evaporation of water has created large salt flats on which no plants can grow.
The landscape of the Great Basin is dominated by low shrubs such as saltbush, sagebrush, blackbrush, and shadescale along with a few species of small cacti. Animals of the Great Basin desert include jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, and horned lizards. Wild horses can also be found whose ancestors escaped from Spanish explorers more than 400 years ago. In more mountainous areas there are also larger mammals such as bobcats, rock squirrels, and ermine.
The Mojave & Sonoran
Location: Mexico & United States
Type: Mojave is a high dry desert. Sonoran is subtropical desert.
Area: Mojave is 31,000 square miles (81,000 square km), Sonoran is 100,000 square miles (260,000 square km)
The Mojave desert lies in southern California to the east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. At an average of over 600 meters above sea level, it is a high desert experiencing warm summers and cooler winters. The exception is Death Valley which, at 86 meters below sea level, is the lowest and hottest place in the United States. Plants in the Mojave consist mainly of drought tolerant shrubs as the desert receives only between 2 and 5 inches of rain per year on average. In higher, cooler places you can also find Joshua trees along with other members of the yucca plant family. Common animals in the Mojave include scorpions, bats, owls, coyotes, tortoises, lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and hummingbirds.
The Sonoran desert lies to the southeast of the Mojave at a lower altitude, making it hotter during summer months. However the desert also receives more rain in the winter months (an average of 10 inches) leading to the growth and flowering of many varieties of plants. The largest plants in the Sonoran desert are the Saguaro cacti, some of which can grow to heights of over 12 meters. Other smaller cacti species also grow there in addition to bush and sage plants. Animals in the desert are similar to those found in the Mojave. To the east and south, the desert transitions into mountainous woodlands found in northern Arizona. To the west it is separated from the rest of California by the Peninsular Ranges.
Type: Dry, non-polar desert. Driest coastal desert in the world
Area: 41,000 square miles (105,000 square km). Alternatively, 49,000 square miles if you include the lower slopes of the Andes.
The Atacama desert is the driest desert in the world with an average yearly rainfall of less than half an inch per year. In some places it has not rained for thousands or even millions of years. In these locations there is no life whatsoever, not even bacteria.
The Atacama is formed from the rain shadow created by coastal ranges, which rise steeply from the edge of the Pacific. Although small amounts of fog bring moisture to the coastal areas, this quickly evaporates, forming a narrow (100 miles wide) but long (600 miles) strip of desert.
The Atacama is noted for its large salt flats which can occasionally flood. Brine Shrimp, whose eggs are able to survive for several years of drought, are able to grow and reproduce in these lakes before they dry up again. Other animals which can be found in the Atacama include flamingos, mice, and lizards.
The Atacama has large deposits of rare and valuable minerals including sodium nitrate and copper. The dry and clear conditions have also proved to be perfect for astronomical observation leading to the construction of several large telescopes in higher regions of the Atacama.
Type: Subtropical desrt
Area: 3,600,000 square miles (9,200,000 square km)
The Sahara, at 3.6 million square miles, is the largest desert on Earth. Because it is so large, the Sahara has many different regions. Some parts are dominated by gravel and rocky surfaces along with large rock outcrops. However, the most famous features of the Sahara are the large sand seas which range from 20 meters to over 100 meters thick. Individual dunes, blown by the wind, can reach up to 300 meters high. In these areas the amount of rainfall each year can be as little as half an inch, whereas in other areas the Sahara can get as much as 16 inches of water.
The Sahara has undergone huge changes throughout history due to small changes in the tilt of the Earth, which can lead to dry glacial periods (as water is stored up in more northerly regions) and wetter interglacial periods. Around 10,000 years ago many parts of the Sahara were able to support large herds of animals, however over time the region has dried out causing people and animals to migrate to wetter areas.
What little vegetation exists in the Sahara can usually be found in the many oases (plural for Oasis) which are spread throughout the northern reaches of the desert. Date palms can grow in these places, providing water for animals such as camels and goats. The Sahara also has a large number of nocturnal animals such as foxes and jerboa (desert rodent). Reptiles such as snakes, lizards, and crocodiles can also be found in certain places. Large mammals like elephants have also been seen in the desert, migrating to find new sources of food and water.
The Namib (Skeleton Coast)
Type: Coastal desert
Area: 62,000 square miles (160,000 square km)
The Namib in southwest Africa is a long, narrow strip of desert around 100 miles wide and 800 miles long. In some places large dunes can be found right next to the Atlantic Ocean, while further inland the terrain becomes rocky.
The aridity of the Namib is caused by the descent of dry air which is cooled by strong currents. As a result the coastal areas receive less than 10 mm of rain every year while inland areas receive around 85 mm. The only regular moisture comes from fogs which move in from the ocean. These fogs also obscure large areas of the coastline, leading to the wrecking of many ships on the shore. These wrecks have also given the Namib the nickname of the “Skeleton Coast”.
Despite an almost total lack of surface water, the Namib has a large number of plants and animals which have specially adapted to the extreme dryness of the desert. The Welwitschia plant uses it’s two long strap-shaped leaves to collect moisture from the sea fogs. Scorpions and other creatures with exoskeletons are found, as they lose little water. A species of desert beetle has also evolved which is able to capture moisture from fogs and channel it into its mouth. Another type of beetle is able to build webs which capture water. Even large animals have been found in the Namib including elephants and lions which migrate between different water holes and are mostly active during the night time when temperatures are lower.
Type: Semi-arid sandy savanna
Area: 350,000 square miles (900,000 square km)
The Kalahari covers an area of over 350,000 square miles, across the nations of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. Rainfall in the Kalahari ranges from 5 inches a year to over 20, creating large areas of seasonal grasslands which support large numbers of plants, animals, and humans. Other areas of the Kalahari are dominated by large sand fields and dune systems, many of which are partially covered in vegetation.
Plants which grow in large numbers in the Kalahari include thorny scrub plants and acacia trees. Large herds of animals such as springbok and wildebeest migrate following the rains to find fresh pasture. These animals in turn are hunted by predators such as lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs. A large number of birds can also be found, which either hunt or scavenge from the bodies of dead animals. The most common small mammal is the meerkat, a type of mongoose, which have dug huge systems of underground tunnels and burrows.
The Kalahari has a number of flat saltpans which can flood after heavy rains. When this happens huge flocks of flamingos, often numbering over 10,000 birds, migrate to the area. Ostriches can also be seen in these areas in small groups.
The Kalahari has one permanent river, the Okavango, which flows into a delta in the northwest and forms marshes which support many animals including elephants, hippos, giraffes, crocodiles, rhinos, and zebra.
The Arabian Desert
Location: South-western Asia
Type: Subtropical hot desert
Area: 716,400 square miles (1,855,470 square km)
The Arabian desert is an extension of the Sahara desert, separated only by the Red Sea. In most years this large desert, covering over 700,000 square miles, receives less than 4 inches of rain. Hot summers are followed by mild winters with most plants and animals found in coastal areas which are cooler than the baking hot interior.
Large parts of the Arabian desert are covered in huge sand seas which are almost impossible to pass through. The largest single area of sand, the Rub al’ Khali, is roughly the size of France and regularly experiences summer temperature in excess of 115 degrees.
Like the Sahara, the Arabian desert used to be much wetter than it is now. Evidence has been found of ancient populations of elephants, hippos, and crocodiles. However today there are only limited numbers of smaller creatures including jackals, hyenas, and honey badgers. Humans have managed to raise herds of grazing animals such as sheep and goats as well as camels in coastal regions. Nomadic herders rely on the large number of oases which are the only reliable water sources in many places.
The Arabian desert lies over some of the world’s largest known deposits of oil and natural gas providing huge wealth to many nations, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman.
The Gobi Desert
Type: Cold desert
Area: 500,000 square miles (1,295,000 square km)
The Gobi is the largest desert in Asia, at over 500,000 square miles. Rainfall in the desert varies greatly from east to west as the desert stretches further into the interior. In the east, the desert receives around 10 inches of rain per year, mostly in the summer. In the most westerly regions the amount of rain drops to less than half an inch. Because of its northerly high position the Gobi has an extreme climate, with winter temperatures reaching as low as –40°F due to cold winds blowing down from Siberia. These winds also bring large amounts of snow. In summertime temperatures can rise to as much as 122°F before plunging during the night by as much as 63°F.
Unlike many other deserts the Gobi has few areas of sand. The central part of the desert is covered in a stony pavement which has almost no vegetation. The major plant in the Gobi is saxaul, an almost leafless woody shrub which is drought resistant and can grow up to 4 meters in height. The plant’s roots also help to keep the soil stable and prevent it from blowing away.
Most animals in the Gobi are small, including long-eared hedgehogs and dwarf hamsters. In wetter areas herds of Bactrian (double humped) camels and Mongolian gazelles can be found. The Gobi is also home to the only desert-dwelling bear, the mazaalai (Gobi bear), although it it a critically endangered species with fewer than 30 still living in the wild. Reptiles such as geckos and sand boas also live in drier areas.
The Great Sandy Desert
Type: Arid tropical in the North, subtropical in the south
Area: 110,036 square miles (284,993 square km)
Australia’s Great Sandy Desert covers an area of 130,000 square miles, and is the only Australian desert to extend all the way to the coast where it forms a long beach facing the Indian Ocean. The desert receives between 10 and 12 inches of rain every year however almost all of its moisture is quickly evaporated due to the high daytime temperatures during both summer and winter months.
Because of a lack of moisture, very few plants and animals are able to survive in the desert. The most important plant is the drought-resistant spinifex grass which is able to survive long periods of drought. Animals in the desert include camels, dingoes, goannas, and many species of lizard and birds. The desert is also home to marsupials such as moles, and red kangaroos.
Despite these harsh conditions, Aborigines (native Australians) managed to survive for thousands of years by exploiting the small number of natural water sources and plants. Today the Great Sandy Desert is home to large copper and gold mines. There are also uranium deposits. In the most westerly parts of the deserts there are also cattle ranches (called stations in Australia) covering thousands of square miles.
The Great Victoria Desert
Type: Subtropical desert
Area: 163,115 square miles (422,466 square km)
The Great Victoria Desert covers over 160,000 square miles in southwest Australia. It is mostly covered in large expanses of sand but also has rockier areas covered by small pebbles. The temperature of the desert is warm but not as high as others with maximum temperatures reaching around 104°F. In winters the temperature can be low enough to create frosts, especially in higher regions.
Many parts of the desert have enough moisture, around 10 inches per year, to support woodlands of eucalyptus, mulgas, and grass hummocks. Other areas have scattered bushes which can appear following periods of rainfall as well as spinifex grasses.
The Great Victoria desert is home to many species of lizard, most notably the Thorny Devil whose sharp, spiny skin helps to protect it from predators. There are also many burrowing animals such as marsupial moles, water-holding frogs, and a special type of lizard called the Great Desert Skink. Predators in the desert include dingoes as well as two large species of monitor lizards, the perentieand sand goanna.
The Great Victoria desert is largely undisturbed with few farms. Most of the area is set aside as a reserve for the local Aboriginal populations. In past times areas of the desert were used for nuclear testing which has left them contaminated with radioactive materials.
What’s special about the Great Basin?
One special feature of the Great Basin desert is its internal drainage system. Rain following to the surface evaporates, goes underground or flows into lakes and valleys. None of the precipitation makes it to the sea.
What is the Mojave Desert known for?
The Mojave desert is famous for having the hottest air temperate AND surface temperature ever recorded on Earth. It also has the lowest elevation in North America.
What is the Sonoran Desert most known for?
You’ll only find the Saguaro cacti within the Sonoran Desert. It isn’t known to grow anywhere else in the world.
What is the Atacama Desert famous for?
The Atacama Desert is known as the oldest and driest desert in the world. One famous event that occurred in the Atacama desert is the Copiaco mining accident, where 33 miners managed to survive for 69 days buried within a copper-gold mine.
What country is Sahara Desert in?
The Sahara Desert spans multiple countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia and more.
What is the Namib desert known for?
The Namib is well-known for it’s mining of salt, tungsten and diamonds.
What is the Kalahari Desert famous for?
The Kalahari desert is known to have one of the biggest diamond mines in the world.