Top Largest Deserts In The World. Photo: knowinsiders.
Top Largest Deserts In The World. Photo: knowinsiders.

Covering approximately one-third of our planet’s land surface, deserts are a defining geographical phenomenon. Here we explore the 10 largest deserts in the world, sharing their size, features, location, and the odd useful facts.

The List of 10 Largest Deserts In The World

1. Antarctic - 5.5 million square miles

2. Arctic - 5.4 million square miles

3. Sahara - 3.5 million square miles

4. Arabian - 1.0 million square miles

5. Gobi - 0.5 million square miles

6. Patagonian - 0.26 million square miles

7. Great Victoria - 0.25 million square miles

8. Kalahari - 0.22 million square miles

9. Great Basin - 0.19 million square miles

10. Syrian - 0.19 million square miles

What are the largest deserts in the world?

1. Antarctic - 5.5 million square miles

The Antarctic is classified as a polar desert. The Antarctic Desert is the biggest desert in the world, covering all of the land of Antarctica – the continent located over the South Pole. The area has many more superlatives associated with its name than the largest desert alone. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of all the continents in the world.

Nestled around the South Pole, where the coldest temperature on Earth was recorded and which doesn't receive sunlight for months every year, it's sometimes hard to think of icy Antarctica as a desert. But it is the world's largest one because very little precipitation falls there — on average, it gets less than 2 inches (50 millimeters) a year, mostly as snow. The continent is too cold for rainfall, rather the drops of rain turn into small snowflakes and cover the outer surface of the enormous ice sheets.

Despite the low snowfall, vast glaciers cover 99 percent of Antarctica's surface. That's because the average temperature (minus 54 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 48 degrees Celsius) slows down evaporation to a crawl. Over long periods of time, the snowfall accumulates at a rate faster than Antarctica's ablation, according to "Discovering Antarctica," a project of the U.K.'s Royal Geographical Society.

Parts of Antarctica are showing strong signs of warming up along with global climate change, however. Temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5 degrees Celsius) over the past 50 years — five times the rate of the rest of the planet. And scientists think that warm ocean waters could be melting Antarctica's glaciers as they flow under the floating tongues of ice.

Top Largest Deserts In The World
The Antarctic Desert is the world’s largest desert. Photo: safarisafricana.
Unlike most global deserts, the Antarctic covers the entire continent. In fact, an astonishing 98 percent is permanently covered by a sheet of ice. It is considered a desert because it rains on average only 10 mm every year. Some experts even believe that certain parts located away from the coast have not had rain in the past 14 million years.

2. Arctic - 5.4 million square miles

The Arctic tundra is the only other polar desert in the world. It spans numerous northern countries, including Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Asia. It is second only to the Antarctic, measuring a whopping 5.4 million square miles (13.9 million sq. km). It is also considered a desert due to the lack of precipitation; the frigid air is too cold to hold moisture. While it gets more rain than the Antarctic, it still only receives approximately six to ten inches a year.

The cold Arctic Desert is the second largest desert in the world, located in the northern polar region of Earth. The desert stretches across an area of the Arctic Ocean 2,000 km from east to west and 1,000 km from north to south, covering a number of island groups of the north coast of Norway and Russia.

The Arctic Desert observes very similar environmental features as the Antarctic Desert, though has a slightly higher precipitation rate of 50cm per year – approximately the same amount as the Sahara.

In the region now occupied by the Arctic Desert, throughout earth’s history the climate here has varied between periods of being much warmer and sustained, much colder, spells called Ice Ages, according to the Arctic Studies Center (ACS). An ice age has periods of warmer weather called inter-glacial lasting between 10,000 and 40,000 years, and periods of intense cold (glaciations).

The latter are the times that cause glaciers to advance to the northern parts of continents well to the south of the Arctic. The last of these glacial periods ended 10,000 years ago, according to ACS. Arctic inhabitants, such as the Eskimos, have lived there for thousands of years, with the earliest known humans having lived there some 40,000 years ago in Western Siberia. On the Northern America side of the Arctic, human settlement began 15,000 years ago in what is now Alaska. For Greenland and Canada, Arctics human settlements, according to researchers, first began to emerge around 4,000 years ago.

Top Largest Deserts In The World
The bleak Arctic Desert of Norway’s Svalbard island. Photo: safarisafricana.
There are various species of plants and animals that have adapted to survive at the Arctic desert. The Arctic tundra has about 1,700 plant species, including flowering plants, dwarf shrubs, herbs, grasses, mosses, and lichens. Tundra vegetation is generally comprised tiny plants only a few centimeters in height, and these generally grow together in huddles.

3. Sahara - 3.5 million square miles

The Sahara or ‘the Greatest Desert’ is the largest hot desert in the world. In our top 10 list, it is the third-largest desert on the planet.

The Sahara Desert is located in the northern part of the African continent. More specifically the Sahara covers parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia. It’s so large that it covers 25% of Africa’s landmass. The name ‘Sahara’ has come from the Arabic word for ‘desert’, çahra.

The Sahara is the largest subtropical desert in the world, clocking in at 3.5 million square miles (9 million sq. km). Spanning eleven countries, it covers nearly an entire third of Africa. It is most known for its scorching hot climate and mountainous sand dunes that reach as high as 183 meters. Despite these harsh conditions, it is home to numerous desert animals, including camels, lizards, and scorpions. Water sources are rare, but the Sahara does have two rivers and twenty seasonal lakes.

The Sahara is notable not only for its vast size, but parching lack of rainfall. Annual precipitation in the world's second-largest desert is less than 0.9 inches (25 mm) every year. On the east side of the desert, according to NASA, rainfall could be as low as 0.2 inches (5 mm) annually.

While water doesn't often fall to the ground, it's common for water droplets to hover above the desert as fog. There isn't much vegetation in the Sahara to hold on to heat after the sun goes down, so the temperatures can actually get quite cold at night. The sudden shift between day and night temperatures can bring about the fog.

The desert also features a high volcano, Emi Koussi, which is in Chad at the southeastern end of the Tibesti Range. Standing 11,204 feet (3,415 meters) above sea level, there are lava flows and other volcanic features that appear to be as young as two million years old. There is also an active thermal region on the volcano's south flank.

Top Largest Deserts In The World
A camel caravan makes its way over the Saharan sand dunes. Photo: safarisafricana

4. Arabian - 1.0 million square miles

The Arabian is the world’s second largest subtropical desert. Spanning most of the Arabian Peninsula in Asia, it measures approximately 1.0 million square miles (2.6 million sq. km). It is a barren and sandy landscape, but is surprisingly rich in natural resources, such as oil and sulfur. Summer temperatures can go as high as fifty degrees Celsius during the day, but drop drastically at night. Locust and dung beetles are native to this bleak region.

At the center of the Arabian Desert in Saudi Arabia, is one of the largest continuous bodies of sand in the world, complete with picture-postcard sand dunes. The place is called the Ar-Rub Al-Khali, also known as ‘The Empty Quarter‘.

The Arabian Desert encompasses Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries such as Oman and parts of Iraq. How dry and hot the desert is depends on where you're standing.

The interior of the desert can get to a scorching, dry 129 F (54 C). Areas on the coast and in the highlands, however, have more humidity and can also have fog and dew during the cooler parts of the day, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

On average, annual rainfall is less than 4 inches (100 mm), but depending on the region it can range anywhere from 0 to 20 inches (0 to 500 mm). But human activity has artificially irrigated and greened parts of the desert.

Crop circles exploded in abundance in Saudi Arabia during the past three decades, according to a series of Landsat images. These are possible because engineers drilled into a "fossil" water acquifer that is more than 20,000 years old, according to NASA. It has been estimated that at current rates of usage, the water will go dry in 50 years.

Top Largest Deserts In The World
Photo: bestplus.
Top 9 Largest Deserts In The World Top 9 Largest Deserts In The World

Covering approximately one-third of our planet’s land surface, deserts are a defining geographical phenomenon. Here are th top 9 largest deserts in the world.

5. Gobi - 0.5 million square miles

The Gobi Desert is a huge desert region located in East Asia, covering large parts of Northern China and Southern Mongolia. It’s the second-largest desert in Asia and the third-largest cold desert on the planet.

Encompassing large regions of China and Mongolia, the Gobi Desert is arid in parts and more "monsoon-like" in others, meaning it sees wet and dry seasons, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Rainfall varies from about 2 to 8 inches a year (50 mm to 200 mm), depending on the location. The eastern region in particular gets a lot of rainfall in the summer, similar to how monsoons operate in wetter regions.

Spanning parts of Mongolia and China, it measures 0.5 million square miles (1.3 million sq. km). Its terrain is mostly rocks and hard-packed earth, which made it a valuable trade route throughout history. Like all traditional semiarid deserts, the Gobi experiences extremely high temperatures during the summer and frigid temperatures during the winter.

The Gobi is what’s called a rain shadow desert – a region that’s been forced to turn into a desert because mountains block all plant-growing, rainy weather. Despite being a desert, the Gobi is famed for its rare animals such as snow leopards and Bactrian camels.

In 2011, strange zigzag patterns in the Gobi emerged in Google's pictures, prompting a range of conspiracy theories that even included aliens. But the lines were most likely used to calibrate Chinese spy satellites to help the spacecraft orient themselves in orbit, said Jonathon Hill, a research technician and mission planner at the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University.

The Gobi is also a good spot for dinosaur-hunting. A rare Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton uncovered in that region was auctioned off in 2012, fetching $1 million amid a legal dispute.
Top Largest Deserts In The World
Dawn in the Gobi Desert. Photo: safarisafricana.

6. Patagonian - 0.26 million square miles

Located in Argentina, the Patagonian Desert—also known as the Patagonian Steppe—is the sixth largest desert in the world. It measures roughly 0.26 million square miles (0.67 million sq. km). To the west lie the Andes, the world’s longest mountain range, and to the east, the Atlantic Ocean. As a semiarid desert, it shares similar characteristics with the Gobi desert. Frost covers the ground during the winter season, but snow is unusual due to the dryness of the region.

With an area of about 260,000 square miles (673,000 square kilometres), it constitutes a vast area of steppe and desert that extends south from latitude 37° to 51° S. It is bounded, approximately, by the Patagonian Andes to the west, the Colorado River to the north (except where the region extends north of the river into the Andean borderlands), the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Strait of Magellan to the south; the region south of the strait—Tierra del Fuego, which is divided between Argentina and Chile—also is often included in Patagonia.

The name Patagonia is said to be derived from Patagones, as the Tehuelche Indians, the region’s original inhabitants, were called by 16th-century Spanish explorers. According to one account, Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese navigator who led the first European expedition into the area, coined that name because the appearance of the Tehuelche reminded him of Patagon, a dog-headed monster in the 16th-century Spanish romance Amadís of Gaul.

This entire region is a cold desert scrub steppe, made up of rocky shrubland and thorn thicket and experiencing year-round frosts and constant winds. Despite this, Patagonia is home to an array of wildlife including foxes, llamas, armadillos, and more.

Patagonia is influenced by the South Pacific westerly air current, which brings humid winds from the ocean to the continent. These winds, however, lose their humidity (through cooling and condensation) as they blow over the west coast of South America and over the Andes, and they are dry when they reach Patagonia. Patagonia can be divided into two main climatic zones—northern and southern—by a line drawn from the Andes at about latitude 39° S to a point just south of the Valdés Peninsula, at about 43° S.

The original inhabitants of Patagonia consisted mostly of Tehuelche Indians, who are thought to have come from Tierra del Fuego. The most ancient artifacts, such as harpoons, found in the caves along the Strait of Magellan suggest that these people were moving up the mainland coast about 5,100 years ago. The robust and tall Tehuelche were divided into northern and southern groups, each with its own dialect. Spanish explorers found the Tehuelche living as nomadic hunters of guanaco and rhea. The surviving descendants of these people are few in number, nearly all of them having been assimilated into Spanish culture.

Top Largest Deserts In The World
Dust and clouds combine in this image of Argentina, including the Patagonian Desert. (Image credit: NASA/Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC)

Toward the end of the 16th century, the Spaniards attempted to colonize the Patagonian coastal region to clear it of English pirates, but a Jesuit settlement on San Matías Gulf came to nothing. In 1778 the English tried to settle on the same bay, and the Spaniards reacted by founding Patagonia’s first two towns, San José and Viedma (originally named Nuestra Señora del Carmen). A Spanish settlement at Puerto Deseado lasted from 1780 to 1807, but three years later this region again was devoid of European settlement.

7. Great Victoria - 0.25 million square miles

The Great Victoria is a subtropical desert located in Australia. It is the seventh largest desert in the world, clocking in at 0.25 million square miles (0.65 million sq. km). It is a harsh environment of sand, rocks, hard packed-earth, and grassland. During the summer, temperatures rise up to forty degrees Celsius. As with most subtropical deserts, it is cooler during the winter, but still fairly hot. The Great Victoria receives an average of eight to ten inches of rain every year.

The Great Victoria Desert covers a great deal of Australia and is mostly made up of parallel dunes as well as some salt lakes, according to an atlas from the Government of South Australia. The dunes are mostly red sand that came from the Western Australian Shield, changing to white as one moves south due to sands coming from the coast.

The Australian government describes the region as one with "variable and unpredictable rainfall." Averaging out data between 1890 and 2005, rainfall is about 6.4 inches (162 mm) annually. Due to the harsh environment, most of the desert is split between Aboriginal lands, conservation areas and crown land, with no major cities.

One of the Outback's greatest ecological threats comes from camels, whose ancestors were imported from India, Afghanistan and Arabia during the 19th century for work in the desert. A 2013 BBC report said the approximately 750,000 feral camels drink an ordinate amount of water and also damage infrastructure. "Camels are almost uniquely brilliant at surviving the conditions in the Outback," said explorer Simon Reeve in the report. "Introducing them was short-term genius and long-term disaster."

Top Largest Deserts In The World
Very remote spinifex grass covered spot in the Great Victoria Desert in central Australia. Image credit: N Mrtgh/Shutterstock.

8. Kalahari - 0.22 million square miles

The Kalahari is a subtropical desert located in southern Africa. Spanning parts of Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, it is the eighth largest desert in the world at 0.22 million square miles (0.56 million sq. km). Interestingly, it is classified as a semi-desert as it receives four to eight inches of rain per year, but twenty during special wet years—ten more than what is generally accepted for a region to be considered a desert. Wild animals such as meerkat, hyena, kudu, and wildebeest call this region home.

The Kalahari Desert covers large tracts of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. It averages less than 20 inches (500 mm) of rain a year in, but some locations receive less than 8 inches (200 mm) annually, according to the 1991 book The Kalahari Environment by David G. Thomas and Paul A. Shaw.

Described as "featureless" by the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Kalahari is mostly covered by sand sheets that were formed sometime between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago, probably due to the action of wind and rain. The sheets have been virtually unchanged since then.

The Kalahari was also a site of human activity thousands of years ago. In one excavated area, South Africa's Wonderwerk Cave, archaeologists found evidence of fires lit about one million years ago. A separate discovery of artifacts in Botswana's Tsodilo Hills implied humans performed rituals 70,000 years ago.

The presence of a deep sand cover over most of the area greatly affects the vegetation that grows there. Shallow-rooted plants cannot survive on a perennial basis, although annuals that grow very rapidly after a good rain may be able to sow seeds that will endure until the next good rainy season. Trees with roots deep enough to reach permanently moist sand levels do well.

In the southern and central parts of the Kalahari Desert, surface water is found only in small, widely scattered waterholes, and surface drainage is nonexistent. Nearly all of the rain that falls disappears immediately into the deep sand. Some is absorbed by the underlying rock strata; some is drawn to the surface by capillary action and evaporated into the air; and some, lifted from the depths by tree roots, is transpired from leaf surfaces. A small amount, landing on nonsandy surfaces, may flow short distances into pans, but this occurs only immediately after the infrequent rains. In some parts of the central and southern Kalahari, extensive ancient drainage systems have been detected—some on the ground and others by way of aerial photographs. None of these operate today, even in the wettest of years.

Top Largest Deserts In The World
Big nest of weaver birds in the kalahari desert, Namibia. Image credit: Thomas Noitz/Shutterstock.

9. Great Basin - 0.19 million square miles

At 0.19 million square miles (0.49 million sq. km), the Great Basin is one of the “big four” deserts in North America. It spans multiple states, covering most of Nevada and Utah. Located directly north of the Mojave Desert, it is a dry expanse of clay, silt, and sand; however, as a semiarid desert, it receives a fair amount of snow during the winter months. It is said that at 4,950 years old, a local Bristlecone Pine is the world’s oldest living thing.

Unlike every other desert in the United States, the Great Basin is a "cold" desert — one where most of the precipitation falls as snow. Its geographic extent includes most of Nevada, part of Utah and parts of many surrounding states. Rainfall in the region ranges between 6 and 12 inches (150 and 300 mm) annually.

The desert came to be because it was in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of eastern California, according to the National Park Service. The desert, in turn, also affects surrounding areas. Strong winds known as the Santa Ana often blow into Southern California after forming in areas of high pressure in the Great Basin.

The Great Basin is also home to some unusual rocks, such as some found in central Nevada in 2009 that were described as dripping like honey. The deformation is taking place due to changes in the Earth's mantle, which alters due to intense pressure and heat within Earth's surface. Heavier material in the lithosphere, as it warms up, sinks through the lighter mantle, trailing material after it.

The Great Basin is particularly noted for its internal drainage system, in which precipitation falling on the surface leads eventually to closed valleys and does not reach the sea. The Humboldt River of northern Nevada, for example, rises in ranges in the northeast of the state, drains a number of small valleys on its way westward, and ends in a closed basin called Humboldt Sink. The Great Salt Lake lies in the final and lowest catchment basin of western Utah and gathers much of the drainage of the region that has not evaporated or seeped underground en route.
Top Largest Deserts In The World
The great basin desert from the air. Photo: safarisafricana.

Minerals have proved to be the greatest resource of the Great Basin. Much of the nation’s gold, magnesite, barite, and mercury are produced in Nevada, which is also among the leading producers of lithium, silver, diatomite, and gemstones. Utah is the leading producer of beryllium ore and is among the leading producers of gold, silver, copper, iron ore, and molybdenum.

Most of the population in Utah is located along the western base of the Wasatch Range focusing on Salt Lake City, with sustaining water supplies coming from streams in the mountains and also from wells tapping the great underground water reservoir trapped beneath the adjacent valley. Similarly, on the other side of the Great Basin, a good part of the population of western Nevada, centring on Reno, is found along the east front of the Sierra Nevada, which supplies most of the water for that area.

10. Syrian - 0.19 million square miles

Syrian Desert, Arabic Bādiyat Al-Shām, arid wasteland of southwestern Asia, extending northward from the Arabian Peninsula over much of northern Saudi Arabia, eastern Jordan, southern Syria, and western Iraq. Receiving on the average less than 5 inches (125 mm) of rainfall annually and largely covered by lava flows, it formed a nearly impenetrable barrier between the populated areas of the Levant and Mesopotamia until modern times; several major motor routes and oil pipelines now bisect it. In the late 1970s, there was much oil exploration. The desert, the southern sector of which is commonly known as Al-Ḥammād, is inhabited by several nomadic tribes and breeders of Arabian horses.

Top Largest Deserts In The World
Sweeping sand and rock formations in the Syrian Desert. Photo: safarisafricana.

The Syrian Desert is described as an "arid wasteland" by Merriam-Webster. Covering much of Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, the region is marked by lava flows and was an "impenetrable barrier" to humans until recent decades. Now, highways and oil pipelines cross the region, which receives less than 5 inches (125 mm) of rain annually, on average.

Humans were able to reach parts of it in ancient times, though. One area, now dubbed "Syria's Stonehenge," was discovered in 2009. It includes stone circles and possibly, tombs, according to a 2012 Discovery News report.

The Es Safa volcano field near Damascus is Arabia's largest volcanic field. The vents found in that area were active about 12,000 years ago, during the Holocene Epoch. More recently, a boiling lava lake was spotted in the region around 1850.

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