Largest non-polar deserts Sand dunes in the Rub' al Khali ("Empty quarter") of Saudi Arabia. Makhtesh Ramon, Negev desert, Israel
A desert is a landscape or region that receives an extremely low amount of precipitation, less than enough to support growth of most plants. Most deserts have an average annual precipitation of less than . A common definition distinguishes between true deserts, which receive less than of average annual precipitation, and semideserts or steppes, which receive between and .
Deserts can also be described as areas where more water is lost by evapotranspiration than falls as precipitation. In the K ppen climate classification system, deserts are classed as BWh (hot desert) or BWk (temperate desert). In the Thornthwaite climate classification system, deserts would be classified as arid megathermal climates.
Deserts are part of a wide classification of regions that, on an average annual basis, have a moisture deficit (i.e. they lose more moisture than they receive). Measurement of rainfall alone cannot provide an accurate definition of what a desert is because being arid also depends on evaporation, which depends in part on temperature. For example, Phoenix, Arizona receives less than 250 millimeters (10 in) of precipitation per year, and is immediately recognized as being located in a desert due to its arid adapted plants. The North Slope of Alaska's Brooks Range also receives less than 250 millimeters (10 in) of precipitation per year and is often classified as a cold desert. Other regions of the world have cold deserts, including areas of the Himalayas and other high altitude areas in other parts of the world. Polar deserts cover much of the ice free areas of the arctic and Antarctic. An alternative definition describes deserts as parts of earth that don't have a sufficient vegetation cover to support human population.
Potential evapotranspiration supplements the measurement of rainfall in providing a scientific measurement-based definition of a desert. The water budget of an area can be calculated using the formula P PE S, wherein P is precipitation, PE is potential evapotranspiration rates and S is amount of surface storage of water. Evapotranspiration is the combination of water loss through atmospheric evaporation and through the life processes of plants. Potential evapotranspiration, then, is the amount of water that could evaporate in any given region. As an example, Tucson, Arizona receives about 300 millimeters (12 in) of rain per year, however about 2500 millimeters (100 in) of water could evaporate over the course of a year. In other words, about 8 times more water could evaporate from the region than actually falls. Rates of evapotranspiration in cold regions such as Alaska are much lower because of the lack of heat to aid in the evaporation process.
Deserts are sometimes classified as "hot" and "cold" deserts. Cold deserts can be covered in snow or ice; frozen water unavailable to plant life. These are more commonly referred to as tundra if a short season of above-freezing temperatures is experienced, or as an ice cap if the temperature remains below freezing year-round, rendering the land almost completely lifeless.
In 1961, Peveril Meigs divided desert regions on Earth into three categories according to the amount of precipitation they received. In this now widely accepted system, extremely arid lands have at least 12 consecutive months without rainfall, arid lands have less than 250 mm (10 in) of annual rainfall, and semiarid lands have a mean annual precipitation of between 250 and 500 mm (10 20 in). Arid and extremely arid lands are deserts, and semiarid areas are generally referred to as steppes.
In some parts of the world, deserts are created by a rain shadow effect in which air masses lose much of their moisture as they move over a mountain range; other areas are arid by virtue of being very far from the nearest available sources of moisture.
The Agasthiyamalai hills cut off Tirunelveli in India from the monsoons, creating a rainshadow region.
Deserts are also classified by their geographical location and dominant weather pattern as trade wind, mid-latitude, rain shadow, coastal, monsoon, or polar deserts. Former desert areas presently in non-arid environments are paleodeserts.
Montane deserts are arid places with a very high altitude; the most prominent example is found north of the Himalayas, especially in Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, in parts of the Kunlun Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. Many locations within this category have elevations exceeding 3,000 meters (10,000 ft) and the thermal regime can be hemiboreal. These places owe their profound aridity (the average annual precipitation is often less than 40 mm or 1.5 in) to being very far from the nearest available sources of moisture. Montane deserts are normally cold.
Rain shadow deserts form when tall mountain ranges block clouds from reaching areas in the direction the wind is going. As the air moves over the mountains, it cools and moisture condenses, causing precipitation on the windward side. When that air reaches the leeward side, it is dry because it has lost the majority of its moisture, resulting in a desert. The air then warms, expands, and blows across the desert. The warm, desiccated air takes with it any remaining moisture in the desert.
The Thar Desert near Jaisalmer, India. Al Ahmadi]], Kuwait
English desert and its Romance cognates (including Italian and Portuguese deserto, French d sert and Spanish desierto) all come from the ecclesiastical Latin d sertum (originally "an abandoned place"), a participle of d serere, "to abandon." (See desertion.) The correlation between aridity and sparse population is complex and dynamic, varying by culture, era, and technologies; thus the use of the word desert can cause confusion. In English prior to the 20th century, desert was often used in the sense of "unpopulated area", without specific reference to aridity; but today the word is most often used in its climate-science sense (an area of low precipitation) and a desert may be quite heavily populated, with millions of inhabitants. Phrases such as "desert island" and "Great American Desert" in previous centuries did not necessarily imply sand or aridity; their focus was the sparse population. However, the connotation of a hot, parched, and sandy place often influences today's popular interpretation of those phrases.
Tadrart Acacus desert in western Libya, part of the Sahara.
A satellite image of the Sahara, the world's largest hot desert. The snow surface at Dome C Station in Antarctica is representative of the majority of the continent's surface.
Deserts take up about one third (33%) of the Earth's land surface. Hot deserts usually have a large diurnal and seasonal temperature range, with high daytime temperatures, and low nighttime temperatures (due to extremely low humidity). In hot deserts the temperature in the daytime can reach 45 C/113 F or higher in the summer, and dip to 0 C/32 F or lower at nighttime in the winter. Water vapor in the atmosphere acts to trap long wave infrared radiation from the ground, and dry desert air is incapable of blocking sunlight during the day (due to absence of clouds) or trapping heat during the night. Thus, during daylight most of the sun's heat reaches the ground, and as soon as the sun sets the desert cools quickly by radiating its heat into space. Urban areas in deserts lack large (more than 14 C/25 F) daily temperature variations, partially due to the urban heat island effect.
Many deserts are formed by rain shadows; mountains blocking the path of precipitation to the desert (on the lee side of the mountain). Deserts are often composed of sand and rocky surfaces. Sand dunes called ergs and stony surfaces called hamada surfaces compose a minority of desert surfaces. Exposures of rocky terrain are typical, and reflect minimal soil development and sparseness of vegetation. The soil is rocky because of the low chemical weathering, and the relative absence of a humus fraction.
Bottomlands may be salt-covered flats. Eolian processes are major factors in shaping desert landscapes. Polar deserts (also seen as "cold deserts") have similar features, except the main form of precipitation is snow rather than rain. Antarctica is the world's largest cold desert (composed of about 98% thick continental ice sheet and 2% barren rock). Some of the barren rock is to be found in the so-called Dry Valleys of Antarctica that almost never get snow, which can have ice-encrusted saline lakes that suggest evaporation far greater than the rare snowfall due to the strong katabatic winds that evaporate even ice.
The largest hot desert is the Sahara in northern Africa, covering 9 million square kilometres and 12 countries.
Deserts sometimes contain valuable mineral deposits that were formed in the arid environment or that were exposed by erosion. Due to extreme and consistent dryness, some deserts are ideal places for natural preservation of artifacts and fossils. The ten largest deserts (Antarctic not included)
The ten largest deserts
||Area (km )
||Area (mi )
Antarctic Desert (Antarctica)
Arctic Desert (Arctic)
Sahara Desert (Africa)
Arabian Desert (Middle East)
Gobi Desert (Asia)
Kalahari Desert (Africa)
Patagonian Desert (South America)
Great Victoria Desert (Australia)
Syrian Desert (Middle East)
Great Basin Desert (North America)
Satellite view of Al-Dahna desert in Saudi Arabia showing different depositional features
Sand covers only about 20% of Earth's deserts. Most of the sand is in sand sheets and sand seas vast regions of undulating dunes resembling ocean waves "frozen" in an instant of time. In general, there are five forms of deserts:
- Mountain and basin deserts
- Hamada deserts, which consist of plateau landforms
- Regs, which consist of rock pavements
- Ergs, which are formed by sand seas
- Intermontane Basins
Nearly all desert surfaces are plains where eolian deflation removal of fine-grained material by the wind has exposed loose gravels consisting predominantly of pebbles but with occasional cobbles.
The remaining surfaces of arid lands are composed of exposed bedrock outcrops, desert soils, and fluvial deposits including alluvial fans, playas, desert lakes, and oases. Bedrock outcrops occur as small mountains surrounded by extensive erosional plains.
Several different types of dunes exist. Barchan dunes are produced by strong winds blowing across a level surface and are crescent-shaped. Longitudinal or seif dunes are dunes that are parallel to a strong wind that blows in one general direction. Transverse dunes run at a right angle to the constant wind direction. Star dunes are star-shaped and have several ridges that spread out around a point.
Oases are vegetated areas moistened by springs, wells, or by irrigation. Many are artificial. Oases are often the only places in deserts that support crops and permanent habitation.
Prickly pear]] flower Camel Thorn Tree (Acacia erioloba) in the Namib Desert Saguaro cacti in the Baja California Desert, Catavi a region, Mexico.
Deserts have a reputation for supporting very little life, but in reality deserts often have high biodiversity. Some desert flora include shrubs, Prickly Pears, Desert Holly, and the Brittlebush. Most desert plants are drought- or salt-tolerant, such as xerophytes. Some store water in their leaves, roots, and stems. Other desert plants have long taproots that penetrate to the water table if present, or have adapted to the weather by having wide-spreading roots to absorb water from a greater area of the ground. Another adaptation is the development of small, spiny leaves which shed less moisture than deciduous leaves with greater surface areas. The stems and leaves of some plants lower the surface velocity of sand-carrying winds and protect the ground from erosion. Even small fungi and microscopic plant organisms found on the soil surface (so-called cryptobiotic soil) can be a vital link in preventing erosion and providing support for other living organisms.
Deserts typically have a plant cover that is sparse but enormously diverse. The giant saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert provide nests for desert birds and serve as "trees" of the desert. Saguaro grow slowly but may live up to 200 years. When 9 years old, they are about 15 centimeters (6 in) high. After about 75 years, the cacti develop their first branches. When fully grown, saguaro cacti are 15 meters (50 ft) tall and weigh as much as 10 tons. They dot the Sonoran and reinforce the general impression of deserts as cactus-rich land.
Although cacti are often thought of as characteristic desert plants, other types of plants have adapted well to the arid environment. They include the pea and sunflower families. Cold deserts have grasses and shrubs as dominant vegetation.
Desert fauna include animals that remain hidden during daylight hours to control body temperature or to limit moisture needs. Some fauna includes the kangaroo rat, coyote, jack rabbit, and many lizards. These animals adapted to live in deserts are called xerocoles. Many desert animals (and plants) show especially clear evolutionary adaptations for water conservation or heat tolerance, and so are often studied in comparative physiology, ecophysiology, and evolutionary physiology. One well-studied example is the specializations of mammalian kidneys shown by desert-inhabiting species. Many examples of convergent evolution have been identified in desert organisms, including between cacti and Euphorbia, kangaroo rats and jerboas, Phrynosoma and Moloch lizards. The sand cat is one of the animals that inhabits certain deserts.
Atacama]], the world's driest desert
Atacama is the driest place on Earth and is virtually sterile because it is blocked from moisture on both sides by the Andes mountains and by the Chilean Coast Range. The cold Humboldt Current and the anticyclone of the Pacific are essential to keep the dry climate of the Atacama. The average rainfall in the Chilean region of Antofagasta is just 1 mm per year. Some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain. Evidence suggests that the Atacama may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971. It is so arid that mountains that reach as high as 6,885 meters (22,590 feet) are completely free of glaciers and, in the southern part from 25 S to 27 S, may have been glacier-free throughout the Quaternary, though permafrost extends down to an altitude of 4,400 meters and is continuous above 5,600 meters.
A thunderstorm hits Wah Wah Valley, Utah
Rain does fall occasionally in deserts, and desert storms are often violent. A record 44 millimeters (1.7 in) of rain once fell within 3 hours in the Sahara. Large Saharan storms may deliver up to 1 millimeter per minute. Normally dry stream channels, called arroyos or wadis, can quickly fill after heavy rains, and flash floods make these channels dangerous.
A flash flood in the Gobi
Though little rain falls in deserts, deserts receive runoff from ephemeral, or short-lived, streams fed considerable quantities of sediment for a day or two. Although most deserts are in basins with closed or interior drainage, a few deserts are crossed by 'exotic' rivers that derive their water from outside the desert. Such rivers infiltrate soils and evaporate large amounts of water on their journeys through the deserts, but their volumes are such that they maintain their continuity. The Nile River, the Colorado River, and the Yellow River are exotic rivers that flow through deserts to deliver their sediments to the sea. Deserts may also have underground springs, rivers, or reservoirs that lie close to the surface, or deep underground. Plants that have not completely adapted to sporadic rainfalls in a desert environment may tap into underground water sources that do not exceed the reach of their root systems.
While deserts are well known for their lack of water, some groups have adapted ways to find water in this harsh environment. The Bedouin, for example, turn over half-buried stones just before dawn so dew forms on them.
Lakes form where rainfall or meltwater in interior drainage basins is sufficient. Desert lakes are generally shallow, temporary, and salty. Because these lakes are shallow and have a low bottom gradient, wind stress may cause the lake waters to move over many square kilometers. When small lakes dry up, they leave a salt crust or hardpan. The flat area of clay, silt, or sand encrusted with salt that forms is known as a playa or a sink. There are more than a hundred playas in North American deserts. Most are relics of large lakes that existed during the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. Lake Bonneville was a 52,000-square-kilometer (20,000 mi ) lake almost 300 meters (1000 ft) deep in Utah, Nevada, and Idaho during the Ice Age. Today the remnants of Lake Bonneville include Utah's Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, and Sevier Lake. Because playas are arid landforms from a wetter past, they contain useful clues to climatic change.
When the occasional precipitation does occur, it erodes the desert rocks quickly.
The flat terrains of hardpans and playas make them excellent racetracks and natural runways for airplanes and spacecraft. Ground-vehicle speed records have been established on the flat lakebeds of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada and Bonneville Speedway in Utah. Space shuttles and flight-test aircraft land on Rogers Lake Playa at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Formation of hot deserts
There are four main, interlinked causes of hot deserts:
- The formation of the subtropical high-pressure cell.
- The rain shadow effect in the belt of easterly trade winds.
- The effect of the cold currents off the west coast of the continents at these latitudes.
- The depositing sands of a desert along its border into the fertile land
Hot deserts (like cold deserts) may result in average temperature cooling because they reflect more of the incoming light (their albedo is higher than that of water or forests).
A mining plant near Jodhpur, India
Deserts may contain great amounts of mineral resources over their entire surface. This occurrence in minerals also determines the color. For example, the red color of many sand deserts is a result of the occurrence of laterite.
Some mineral deposits are formed, improved, or preserved by geologic processes that occur in arid lands as a consequence of climate. Ground water leaches ore minerals and redeposits them in zones near the water table. This leaching process concentrates these minerals as ore that can be mined.
Evaporation in arid lands enriches mineral accumulation in their lakes. Lake beds known as playas may be sources of mineral deposits formed by evaporation. Water evaporating in closed basins precipitates minerals such as gypsum, salts (including sodium nitrate and sodium chloride), and borates. The minerals formed in these evaporite deposits depend on the composition and temperature of the saline waters at the time of deposition.
Significant evaporite resources occur in the Great Basin Desert of the United States, mineral deposits made famous by the "20-mule teams" that once hauled borax-laden wagons from Death Valley to the railroad. Boron, from borax and borate evaporites, is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of glass, enamel, agricultural chemicals, water softeners, and pharmaceuticals. Borates are mined from evaporite deposits at Searles Lake, California, and other desert locations. The total value of chemicals that have been produced from Searles Lake substantially exceeds US$1 billion.
The Atacama Desert of Chile is unique among the deserts of the world in its great abundance of saline minerals. Sodium nitrate has been mined for explosives and fertilizer in the Atacama since the middle of the 19th century. Nearly 3 million metric tons were mined during World War I.
Valuable minerals located in arid lands include copper in the United States, Chile, Peru, and Iran; iron and lead-zinc ore in Australia; and gold, silver, and uranium deposits in Australia and the United States. Nonmetallic mineral resources and rocks such as beryllium, mica, lithium, clays, pumice, and scoria also occur in arid regions. Sodium carbonate, sulfate, borate, nitrate, lithium, bromine, iodine, calcium, and strontium compounds come from sediments and near-surface brines formed by evaporation of inland bodies of water, often during geologically recent times.
The Green River Formation of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah contains alluvial fan deposits and playa evaporites created in a huge lake whose level fluctuated for millions of years. Economically significant deposits of trona, a major source of sodium compounds, and thick layers of oil shale were created in the arid environment.
Some of the more productive petroleum areas on Earth are found in arid and semiarid regions of Africa and the Mideast, although the oil fields were originally formed in shallow marine environments. Recent climate change has placed these reservoirs in an arid environment. It's noteworthy that Ghawar, the world's largest and most productive oilfield is mostly under the Empty Quarter and Al-Dahna deserts.
Other oil reservoirs, however, are presumed to be eolian in origin and are presently found in humid environments. The Rotliegendes, a hydrocarbon reservoir in the North Sea, is associated with extensive evaporite deposits. Many of the major U.S. hydrocarbon resources may come from eolian sands. Ancient alluvial fan sequences may also be hydrocarbon reservoirs.
Solar energy resources
Arabian]] deserts to produce solar energy to power Europe and the Middle East. Deserts are increasingly seen as sources for solar energy, partly due to lower cloud cover.
Many successful solar power plants have been built in the Mojave Desert. These plants have a combined capacity of 354 megawatts (MW) making them the largest solar power installation in the world. Large swaths of the desert are covered in mirrors (used for solar energy), including nine fields of solar collectors. The Mojave Solar Park is currently under construction and will produce 280MW when completed.
The potential of generating solar energy from the Sahara desert is immense. Professor David Faiman of Ben-Gurion University has stated that the technology now exists to supply all of the world's electricity needs with 10% of the Sahara desert. Desertec Industrial Initiative is a consortium seeking $560 billion investment in North African solar and wind installations over the next 40 years to supply electricity to Europe via cable lines running under the Mediterranean Sea. European interest in the Sahara desert stems from its two aspects: amount of sunshine and empty space. The Sahara receives more sunshine per are than the sunniest of regions in Europe. The Sahara desert also has the empty space required to house fields of mirrors for solar plants, totalling hundreds of square miles.
The Negev Desert, Israel, and the surrounding area, including the Arava Valley, receive plenty of sunshine and are generally not arable. This has resulted in the construction of many solar plants. David Faiman has proposed that "giant" solar plants in the Negev could supply all of Israel's electricity.
Human life in deserts
Nomads making lunch in Thar desert. Bahariya Oasis in Egypt.
A desert is a hostile, potentially deadly environment for unprepared humans. In hot deserts, high temperatures cause rapid loss of water due to sweating, and the absence of water sources with which to replenish it can result in dehydration and death within a few days. In addition, unprotected humans are also at risk from heatstroke.
Humans may also have to adapt to sandstorms in some deserts, not just in their adverse effects on respiratory systems and eyes, but also in their potentially harmful effects on equipment such as filters, vehicles and communication equipment. Sandstorms can last for hours, sometimes even days. This makes surviving in the desert quite difficult for humans.
Despite this, some cultures have made hot deserts their home for thousands of years, including the Bedouin, Tuareg and Pueblo people. Modern technology, including advanced irrigation systems, desalinization and air conditioning have made deserts much more hospitable. In the United States and Australia for example, desert farming has found extensive use.
In cold deserts, hypothermia and frostbite are the chief hazards, as well as dehydration in the absence of a source of heat to melt ice for drinking. Falling through pack-ice or surface ice layers into freezing water is a particular danger requiring emergency action to prevent rapid hypothermia. Starvation is also a hazard; in low temperatures the body requires much more food energy to maintain body heat and to move. As with hot deserts, some people such as the Inuit have adapted to the harsh conditions of cold deserts.
In hot deserts, dehydration is the chief hazard and hypothermia too can be a problem at night. During the day, it is generally advised to keep out of the sun, travelling is best done at night and in early morning. Food is less of an issue, and some plants can often be found to feed oneself. Howevever, eating anything is not advised, unless sufficient water is available, as digestion draws water out of the body. For example in the North american desert, plants such as opuntia, organ pipe cactus, saguaro, Mojave yucca (flowers, fruits), cholla, ocotillo buds, dates, ... can all be eaten.
Most traditional human life in deserts is nomadic. It depends in hot deserts on finding water, and on following infrequent rains to obtain grazing for livestock. In cold deserts, it depends on finding good hunting and fishing grounds, on sheltering from blizzards and winter extremes, and on storing enough food for winter. Permanent settlement in both kinds of deserts requires permanent water and food sources and adequate shelter, or the technology and energy sources to provide it.
Kolob Canyon, part of Zion National Park, Utah, United States is part of the larger desert the Colorado Plateau.
Many deserts are flat and featureless, lacking landmarks, or composed of repeating landforms such as sand dunes or the jumbled ice-fields of glaciers. Advanced skills or devices are required to navigate through such landscapes and inexperienced travellers may perish when supplies run out after becoming lost. In addition sandstorms or blizzards may cause disorientation in severely reduced visibility.
The danger represented by wild animals in deserts has been featured in explorers' accounts but does not cause higher rates of death than in other environments such as rain forests or savanna woodland, and generally does not by itself affect human distribution. Defense against polar bears may be advisable in some areas of the Arctic, as may precautions against venomous snakes and scorpions in choosing sites at which to camp in some hot deserts.
Deserts on other planets
Spirit]] in 2004.
Mars is the only planet in the solar system in which deserts have been identified. Despite its low surface atmospheric pressure (only 1/100 of that of the Earth), the patterns of atmospheric circulation on Mars have formed a sea of circumpolar sand more than 5 million km in area, much larger than deserts on Earth.
The Martian deserts principally consist of dunes in the form of half-moon in flat areas near the permanent polar ice caps in the north of the planet. The smaller dune fields occupy the bottom of many of the craters situated at the Martian polar regions.
- Arid Lands Information Network
- Desert greening
- International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas
- List of deserts
- List of North American deserts
- Sediment precipitation
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