The Mystery of 10 Biggest Deserts In The World

Top 10 Largest and Beautiful Deserts In The United States

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.

What are the largest deserts in the world?

(Ranked by 2023)

1. Antarctic - 5.5 million square miles

Polar desert is the designation given to the Antarctic. The entire continent of Antarctica, which is situated over the South Pole, is covered by the Antarctic Desert, the largest desert in the world. The name of the region is accompanied by many more accolades than only the largest desert. The coldest, driest, windiest, and continent with the greatest average elevation in the globe is Antarctica.

It can be difficult to imagine the freezing continent of Antarctica as a desert when it is tucked away around the South Pole, the location of the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth and where sunlight is scarce for several months every year. But despite the fact that it receives only a small amount of precipitation—on average, less than 2 inches (50 millimeters) annually, usually in the form of snow—it is the largest one in the world. Rain cannot fall on the continent due to the extreme cold; instead, raindrops freeze into tiny snowflakes and cover the vast ice sheets' exterior.

Large glaciers dominate 99 percent of Antarctica's surface despite the region's minimal snowfall. The reason for this is because evaporation slows to a halt at the average temperature of minus 54 degrees Fahrenheit, or negative 48 degrees Celsius. According to "Discovering Antarctica," a project of the U.K.'s Royal Geographical Society, the amount of snowfall increases over a lengthy period of time at a rate that is greater than the amount of ice that is lost from Antarctica.

However, a portion of Antarctica is warming significantly in tandem with the rest of the world. Over the past 50 years, the Antarctic Peninsula's temperatures have risen by 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5 degrees Celsius), five times faster than the rest of the earth. Additionally, experts believe that as warm ocean waves flow beneath the ice floes, they may be melting Antarctica's glaciers.

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 only other polar desert in the world is the Arctic tundra. It includes a large number of northern nations, such as Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Asia. It is enormous, measuring an astounding 5.4 million square miles, second only to the Antarctic (13.9 million sq. km). Due to the absence of precipitation and the freezing air's inability to retain moisture, it is also regarded as a desert. Even though it receives more rain than the Antarctic, it only gets six to ten inches a year on average.

The second-largest desert in the world, the frigid Arctic Desert is found in the planet's northern polar area. The desert covers several island groups off the northern coasts of Russia and Norway, encompassing a region of the Arctic Ocean that is 2,000 km long from east to west and 1,000 km long from north to south.

The Arctic Desert shares many of the same environmental characteristics as the Antarctic Desert, with the exception of a somewhat greater annual precipitation rate of 50 cm, or about the same as the Sahara.

According to the Arctic Studies Center, the climate in the area now occupied by the Arctic Desert has fluctuated throughout earth's history between periods of being significantly warmer and prolonged, significantly colder spells known as Ice Ages (ACS). There are inter-glacial intervals, which endure between 10,000 and 40,000 years, and periods of extreme cold during an ice age (glaciations).

The latter is when glaciers move toward the northern regions of continents located far south of the Arctic. According to ACS, the last of these glacial periods ended 10,000 years ago. Since the earliest known humans lived in Western Siberia some 40,000 years ago, the Arctic has been home to people like the Eskimos for thousands of years. Human habitation in the Arctic began 15,000 years ago in what is now Alaska, on the North American side of the region. Researchers estimate that human settlements in the Arctic began to appear in Greenland and Canada 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 northernmost region of the African continent is home to the Sahara Desert. To be more precise, the Sahara is a region that includes parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia. It occupies 25% of Africa's landmass due to its size. The Arabic word çahra, which means "desert," is the source of the term "Sahara."

At 3.5 million square miles, the Sahara is the world's biggest subtropical desert (9 million sq. km). It spans eleven nations and over a third of all of Africa. The region is well renowned for its sweltering heat and 183-meter-high towering sand dunes. Despite these challenging surroundings, it is home to many desert creatures, including as camels, lizards, and scorpions. Although there are just a few water sources in the Sahara, there are 20 seasonal lakes and two rivers.

In addition to its enormous expanse, the Sahara is known for its severe lack of rainfall. The second-largest desert in the world receives less than 0.9 inches (25 mm) of precipitation annually. NASA estimates that yearly rainfall on the east side of the desert may be as low as 0.2 inches (5 mm).

Water rarely falls to the ground, but it frequently forms fog as it hovers over the desert. It can actually get rather cold at night in the Sahara because there isn't much vegetation to trap heat once the sun sets. The fast change in temperature between day and night may be the cause of the fog.

Emi Koussi, a tall volcano in Chad near the southernmost tip of the Tibesti Range, is another prominent feature of the desert. Lava flows and other volcanic structures that rise 11,204 feet (3,415 meters) above sea level appear to be as recent as two million years ago. A thermally active area is also present on the volcano's southern 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 Desert is the second-largest subtropical desert in the world. It covers the majority of the Arabian Peninsula in Asia and is about 1.0 million square miles (2.6 million sq. km). Despite having a desolate and sandy appearance, it is surprisingly abundant in natural resources like sulfur and oil. In the summer, daytime highs of up to 50 degrees Celsius are common, although overnight lows are much lower. In this desolate area, dung beetles and locusts are native.

One of the largest continuous masses of sand in the world, complete with picture-postcard sand dunes, may be found in Saudi Arabia in the middle of the Arabian Desert. The region is known as Ar-Rub Al-Khali, commonly referred to as "The Empty Quarter."

Saudi Arabia, as well as the neighboring nations of Oman and some of Iraq, are all included in the Arabian Desert. Depending on where you are, the desert might be hot and dry.

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.

Rainfall varies by region and averages less than 4 inches (100 mm) per year, although it can also range from 0 to 20 inches (0 to 500 mm). However, the desert has been artificially irrigated and partially greened by human activities.

According to a series of Landsat pictures, crop circles proliferated throughout Saudi Arabia over the previous three decades. According to NASA, these are conceivable as a result of engineers drilling into a "fossil" water aquifer that is more than 20,000 years old. The water supply will run out in 50 years if demand continues at the current rate.

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

A vast desert area that spans much of Northern China and Southern Mongolia, the Gobi Desert is situated in East Asia. It is the third-largest cold desert on the earth and the second-largest desert in Asia.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Gobi Desert, which spans significant portions of China and Mongolia, is arid in some places and more "monsoon-like" in others, meaning it has both rainy and dry seasons. Depending on the area, annual rainfall ranges from 50 millimeters to 200 millimeters, or roughly 2 to 8 inches. In the summer, the eastern section in particular experiences heavy rainfall, much like monsoons do in wetter climates.

It covers 0.5 million square miles and is located in sections of China and Mongolia (1.3 million sq. km). Due to its predominantly rocky and compacted topography, it has historically served as a crucial trading route. The Gobi has sweltering summer temperatures and bitterly cold winter temperatures, just like all conventional semiarid deserts.

The Gobi is an area that has been forced to become a desert because mountains prevent any rainy, plant-growing conditions, which is known as a rain shadow desert. Even though it is a desert, the Gobi is known for its exotic creatures like snow leopards and Bactrian camels.

2011 saw the appearance of unusual zigzag patterns in the Gobi in Google images, sparking a variety of conspiracy theories, including the possibility of aliens. However, according to Jonathon Hill, a research technician and mission planner at the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University, the lines were probably used to calibrate Chinese spy satellites to assist the spacecraft in finding their own orientation in orbit.

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

The Patagonian Desert, also called the Patagonian Steppe, is the sixth-largest desert in the world and is situated in Argentina. It is around 0.26 million square miles in size (0.67 million sq. km). The Atlantic Ocean is to the east, and the Andes, the longest mountain range in the world, are to the west. It is similar to the Gobi desert in that both are semiarid deserts. During the winter, frost covers the ground, but snow is uncommon due to the area's dryness.

It makes up a sizable steppe and desert region with a surface size of around 260,000 square miles (673,000 square kilometers), stretching south from latitude 37° to 51° S. Its approximate boundaries are as follows: the Patagonian Andes to the west, the Colorado River to the north (except where it extends north of the river into Andean borderlands), the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Strait of Magellan to the south; the area south of the strait, known as Tierra del Fuego, which is shared by Argentina and Chile, is also frequently 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 area is covered with rocky shrubland and thorn thicket, and it is a harsh desert scrub steppe that is subject to year-round frosts and persistent winds. Nevertheless, a variety of animals, such as foxes, llamas, armadillos, and others, can be found in Patagonia.

The South Pacific westerly air current, which transports humid winds from the ocean to the continent, has an impact on Patagonia. However, as these winds pass across the Andes and the west coast of South America, they lose their humidity (via cooling and condensation), and by the time they reach Patagonia, they are dry. A line traced from the Andes, at approximately latitude 39° S, to a point just south of the Valdés Peninsula, at approximately latitude 43° S, can be used to split Patagonia into its two primary climate zones, northern and southern.

Tehuelche Indians, who are assumed to have come from Tierra del Fuego, made up the majority of Patagonia's first settlers. The first artifacts discovered in the caves near the Strait of Magellan, like harpoons, indicate that these people were migrating up the mainland coast about 5,100 years ago. The strong and tall Tehuelche were divided into two groups, each with its own dialect, one in the north and one in the south. The Tehuelche were discovered by Spanish explorers to be living as nomadic rhea and guanaco hunters. Few of these people's descendants are still alive today because almost everyone of them has 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

Australia's Great Victoria Desert is a subtropical region. At 0.25 million square miles, it is the seventh-largest desert in the world (0.65 million sq. km). Sand, rocks, hard packed earth, and grassland make up the tough environment. The summertime temperature can reach 40 degrees Celsius. It is cooler during the winter, although it is still quite hot, like most subtropical deserts. Eight to ten inches of rain fall on The Great Victoria annually, on average.

An atlas from the Government of South Australia states that the Great Victoria Desert, which spans much of Australia, is primarily made up of parallel dunes and a few salt lakes. As one proceeds south, sands from the shore turn the dunes from their predominant red color, which originated from the Western Australian Shield, to their white color.

According to the Australian government, the area has "variable and unexpected rainfall." Rainfall amounts average out to roughly 6.4 inches (162 mm) yearly based on data from 1890 to 2005. The majority of the desert is divided between Aboriginal lands, conservation areas, and crown land due to the severe environment, and there are no significant cities there.

Camels, whose ancestors were introduced from India, Afghanistan, and Arabia throughout the 19th century for use in the desert, pose one of the biggest ecological challenges to the Outback. According to a 2013 BBC article, the estimated 750,000 feral camels consume an excessive amount of water and harm infrastructure. According to explorer Simon Reeve's assessment, "Camels are almost singularly brilliant at surviving the circumstances in the Outback." It was both a short-term genius and a long-term disaster to introduce them.

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

Southern Africa is home to the subtropical desert known as the Kalahari. It is the eighth largest desert in the world and covers portions of Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa (0.22 million square miles) (0.56 million sq. km). Intriguingly, it receives four to eight inches of rain annually, but twenty during exceptional wet years—ten more than what is typically acceptable for a place to be designated a desert. Despite this, it is categorized as a semi-desert. This area is home to numerous wild species, including meerkat, hyena, kudu, and wildebeest.

Large portions of South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia are covered by the Kalahari Desert. According to the 1991 book The Kalahari Environment by David G. Thomas and Paul A. Shaw, the region receives less than 20 inches (500 mm) of rain on average per year, but certain areas only get 8 inches (200 mm) on average.

The Kalahari, which the Encyclopedia Britannica calls "featureless," is primarily covered with sand sheets that were probably produced between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago as a result of wind and rain. Since then, the sheets have hardly changed.

Thousands of years ago, there was also human activity in the Kalahari. Archaeologists discovered evidence of flames ignited roughly a million years ago in one excavation site, the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa. Separate artifact finds in Botswana's Tsodilo Hills suggested ritualistic behavior by humans 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.

Surface water is only present in a few tiny, dispersed waterholes in the southern and central Kalahari Desert, and there is no surface drainage. Almost much of the rain that does fall is soon absorbed by the deep sand. Some of the water is absorbed by the underlying rock strata, some is pulled to the surface by capillary action and evaporates into the atmosphere, and some is flowed from leaf surfaces after being drawn up from the depths by tree roots. A tiny amount that settles on non-sandy surfaces may flow briefly into pans, but this only happens right after the occasional rains. Extensive ancient drainage networks have been found in several areas of the central and southern Kalahari, some on the ground and some from aerial photography. Even in the wettest of years, none of these still function.

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

One of North America's "big four" deserts, the Great Basin is 0.19 million square miles (0.49 million sq. km) in size. It covers the majority of Utah and Nevada, spanning many states. It is a dry area of clay, silt, and sand that lies directly to the north of the Mojave Desert. Despite being a semiarid desert, it receives some snow throughout the winter. A local Bristlecone Pine is reputed to be the oldest living thing in the world at 4,950 years old.

The Great Basin is a "cold" desert, which means that most of the precipitation falls as snow. This distinguishes it from every other desert in the United States. Its geographic range encompasses the majority of Nevada, a portion of Utah, and fragments of other neighboring states. The region receives between 6 and 12 inches (150 and 300 mm) of rain per year.

According to the National Park Service, the Sierra Nevada Mountains in eastern California's rain shadow caused the area to become a desert. In turn, the desert has an impact on the region around it. Frequently, the powerful Santa Ana winds, which originate in the Great Basin's high pressure regions, blow into Southern California.

The Great Basin is also the location of several peculiar rocks, such as those that were discovered in central Nevada in 2009 and were said to drip like honey. The Earth's mantle is changing as a result of the high pressure and heat near the surface of the planet, which is what is causing the deformation. As the lithosphere warms up, heavier material sinks into the lighter mantle, pulling material behind 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.

The Great Basin's largest resource has proven to be minerals. Nevada is one of the top producers of lithium, silver, diatomite, and gemstones. It also produces a significant amount of the nation's gold, magnesite, barite, and mercury. Utah is one of the top producers of gold, silver, copper, iron ore, and molybdenum. It is also the top producer of beryllium ore.

The majority of Utah's population is concentrated in the Salt Lake City area around the western base of the Wasatch Range, and its water needs are met by wells that draw from a large underground water reservoir and mountain streams. Similar to this, on the opposite side of the Great Basin, a sizable portion of western Nevada's population, centered on Reno, is located along the east front of the Sierra Nevada, which provides the majority of the region's water.

10. Syrian - 0.19 million square miles

Arid wasteland in southwest Asia known as the Syrian Desert, or Bdiyat Al-Shm in Arabic, covers a large portion of northern Saudi Arabia, eastern Jordan, southern Syria, and western Iraq. Up until the present, it served as a nearly impenetrable barrier separating the populated regions of Mesopotamia and the Levant, receiving on average less than 5 inches (125 mm) of rainfall per year and being largely covered by lava flows. However, several important highways and oil pipelines now cut through it. There was a great deal of oil prospecting in the late 1970s. Numerous nomadic tribes and Arabian horse breeders live in the desert, which is home to its southern region known as Al-ammd.

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

Merriam-Webster calls the Syrian Desert a "arid wilderness." The region, which includes a large portion of Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, is characterized by lava flows and, until recently, was a "impenetrable barrier" to mankind. The area now has motorways and oil pipelines running through it, and its average annual rainfall is less than 5 inches (125 mm).

However, some of it was accessible to humans in the past. One location was found in 2009 and is now known as "Syria's Stonehenge." According to a 2012 Discovery News report, it contains stone circles and potentially burials.

Arabia's largest volcanic field is the Es Safa volcano field near Damascus. During the Holocene Epoch, some 12,000 years ago, the vents discovered there were active. Around 1850, a lake of boiling lava was discovered in the area.

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