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Let’s explore the global desert variety and gain new insights

the desert variety of wadi rum captured in one image

The variety of deserts on our planet is enormous and enticing

Deserts are often associated with vast dunes under a scorching sun. However, they are much more varied and fascinating than that. Therefore, this blog aims to provide information about what defines a desert, how they are formed, the different types of deserts, where you can find deserts and the ten biggest deserts in the world. Also, we will look closely at specific desert characteristics to illustrate the diversity. And we finish this blog with an invitation for a desert adventure of a lifetime.

Table of Contents

What is a desert?

An area is scientifically classified as desert based on two key factors: less than 250 millimeters of rainfall annually and high evaporation rates. The annual rain can come in sudden heavy rain showers or spread out over long periods. Due to the high temperatures and low humidity, evaporation rates are high. Therefore, even if a desert receives a little rain, it dries rapidly. These two factors create a dry (arid) environment that supports limited plant and animal life and creates hostile living conditions for humans. However, deserts are not always barren wastelands. They can have a surprisingly diverse range of plant and animal life well-adapted to the harsh conditions.

How deserts are formed - the causes of aridity

Deserts are formed by four natural factors that cause aridity in specific areas: global atmospheric circulation, continentality, relief, and cold ocean currents. We will discuss these factors in detail in the following paragraphs. It’s important to note that many deserts are formed due to a combination of these natural factors. In addition to these factors, desertification can occur due to climate change and human activities. Desertification refers to land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas.

global atmospheric circulation model

Global atmospheric circulation​

The first factor contributing to deserts' formation is the global atmospheric circulation. This circulation is vital in distributing heat across the planet, regulating temperatures, and impacting rainfall patterns. The Earth’s atmosphere circulates in three large loops on each hemisphere powered by sunlight and the planet’s rotation. These loops are the Hadley cell (0° to 30°), the Ferrel Cell (30° to 60°), and the Polar Cell (60° to 90°). As the air cools and sinks in the 30° and 90° zones, high-pressure zones with minimal rainfall are created. This phenomenon explains the presence of deserts in the subtropical latitudes (around 30°) and the polar latitudes (around 90°). The largest subtropical desert is the Sahara, while the largest polar desert is Antarctica.


The second factor that causes deserts to form is continentality. Water in the atmosphere mainly comes from the ocean through evaporation. When the wind carries humid air inland, it starts to lose its moisture through precipitation. Areas closer to the sea usually receive more precipitation. At the same time, areas located farther away may experience little to no precipitation because the air has already lost most of its moisture content by the time it reaches those places. As a result, these deserts are found in the interior areas of continents. These deserts are known as interior deserts. The Gobi Desert is probably the most famous interior desert.

rain shadow effect visual explained


Relief is another significant contributing factor to the formation of deserts. As moist air masses move towards a mountain range, they are forced upwards. This upward movement causes the air to cool down, leading to condensation and precipitation on the mountains facing the wind. Once the air crosses over the mountain peak and descends on the other side, it becomes warmer due to compression. This warming process causes moisture to evaporate, leaving the air dry. These deserts are known as rain-shadow deserts. The Patagonian Desert is a great example of a rain-shadow desert.

global hot and cold ocean currents

Cold ocean currents

Lastly, cold ocean currents play a vital role in creating deserts. They cool the air above them, making it unable to hold much moisture. This cool air is also stable and stays close to the ground, preventing rain cloud formation. As the cool, dry air reaches the land, it warms up and becomes thirsty for moisture. It sucks the moisture out of the land, further drying it out and contributing to aridity. These deserts are known as coastal deserts. The most famous coastal deserts are the Atacama Desert and the Namib Desert.

Classifying the types of deserts in the world

Deserts can be classified in several ways, depending on temperature, precipitation, geographical location, and dryness causes. Based on temperature, there are two types: hot and cold deserts. If we define deserts by precipitation, we have extremely arid (less than 70 mm), arid (70-150 mm), and semi-arid (150-330 mm). Geographically, there are four types of deserts: polar, subtropical, cold winter, and cool coastal deserts. However, we prefer to classify them based on the cause of dryness. This classification includes subtropical, polar, interior, rain-shadow, and coastal deserts.

Desert regions on our planet

Deserts are found worldwide and cover approximately one-third of our planet’s land surface. These arid regions result from four natural factors, forming deserts in specific areas of our planet. The 33 major desert areas on Earth contain 71 deserts spread over our seven continents and the Arctic. Here is the list of deserts per continent and the Artic:

global desert variety mapped in deserts per continent

Top 10 biggest deserts in the world

It is worth noting that all continents except Europe have at least one desert among the world’s top 10 biggest deserts. Moreover, the Middle East holds the fourth and ninth positions. This should not come as a surprise since around 50% of the land in the Middle East is covered by a desert. Here are the top 10 major deserts according to WorldAtlas, including what type of desert it is based on the main cause for aridity and their corresponding continents:

  1. Antarctic Desert: a polar desert in Antarctica
  2. Arctic Desert: a polar desert in the north polar region
  3. Sahara Desert: a subtropical desert in Africa
  4. Arabian Desert: a subtropical desert in the Middle East – Asia
  5. Gobi Desert: an interior desert in Asia
  6. Kalahari Desert: a subtropical desert in Africa
  7. Patagonian Desert: a rain shadow desert in South America
  8. Great Victoria Desert: a subtropical desert in Australia
  9. Syrian Desert: a subtropical desert in the Middle East – Asia
  10. Great Basin Desert: a rain shadow desert in North America
top 10 biggest deserts in the world

source: Vzb83 (2005); original image from Wikimedia.

Desert variety

After covering the definition of a desert, the factors that contribute to its formation, the global distribution of deserts, and the top 10 largest deserts in the world, it becomes clear that deserts are incredibly diverse in many ways. Let us delve into specific desert characteristics to showcase their variety and extremes.

view from brown bluff on Antarctica, the largest, coldest, and driest desert in the world

The largest, coldest, and driest desert on our planet​

Antarctica is the world’s largest, coldest, and driest desert, covering 14.2 million square kilometers. It holds the record for the lowest temperature ever measured, a staggering -89.2°C. The continent’s icy plains, covering 98% of its surface, technically make it the wettest place on Earth. However, the annual rainfall is less than 250 mm yearly, making it a desert. The interior is genuinely dry, with an average annual precipitation of only 50 mm, mostly ice crystals. Scientists believe the McMurdo Dry Valleys have not seen any precipitation in a few million years, making it the driest place on Earth. The aridity and fierce winds create a uniquely haunting landscape unlike any other on Earth.

The world’s largest hot desert

The Sahara Desert is the world’s largest hot desert, spanning over 9.2 million square kilometers and covering almost 8% of Africa’s landmass, which is nearly equivalent to the size of China. Despite being known for its sand dunes, they only make up around 25% of the desert. The Sahara comprises various landscapes, including rocky plateaus, gravel plains, salt flats, and mountains. The climate here is extremely harsh, with minimal rainfall, and some areas receive less than an inch annually. The average temperature is around 30°C throughout the year, and due to the low humidity levels, the temperature drops significantly at night, reaching as low as -6°C.

The hottest desert in the world

The Lut Desert, located in Iran, holds the title of the world’s hottest desert. According to satellite data from 2005, it recorded a land skin temperature of 70.7°C. It is essential to note that this is not the air temperature used by meteorological organizations, but the temperature of the ground. Despite the extreme heat, the Lut Desert is stunning with its vast stretches of sculpted sand dunes and rocky plains. David J. Mildrexler’s publication in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society states that the Lut Desert competed with the Simpson Desert in Australia and the Taklamakan Desert in China for the title of the hottest desert during the research period (2003-2009). However, these research data are over 15 years old, and it’s uncertain which desert would win the title if the study were repeated today. We assume that apart from the top three contenders back then, the Mojave Desert, Death Valley, the Sahara Desert, and the Sonoran Desert could also be potential contenders for the hottest desert title.

The highest and driest non-polar desert

Nestled high in the Andes Mountains of South America’s Chile along the Pacific coastline, the Atacama Desert is the highest and driest non-polar desert on Earth. It receives less than 20mm of precipitation annually, and some areas are completely dry. The little precipitation that it receives comes from condensed fog instead of rain. The Atacama’s extreme aridity is due to a combination of factors such as the cool Humboldt Current and the rain shadow effect of the Andes Mountains. Despite its dryness, the Atacama boasts unique features, such as vast stretches of salt flats, sculpted sand dunes, and rocky mountains. In October 2015, after historic rainfall, large parts of the desert bloomed pink.

The oldest desert on Earth

The Namib Desert stretches along the southwestern coast of Africa and is considered to be the oldest desert on Earth, with its formation dating back to around 55 million years ago. A unique fog system is created by cold ocean currents meeting warm land breezes, which sustains a surprisingly diverse variety of species of plants and animals endemic to this desert. What sets it apart from other deserts is the presence of elephants. Sossusvlei, located in the Namib Desert, boasts some of the world’s tallest sand dunes, while Deadvlei is home to the skeletal remains of dead camel thorn trees that died centuries ago. Furthermore, Skeleton Coast is littered with the wrecks of ships stranded there over the centuries.

The world’s biggest salt desert

Nestled in southwest Bolivia, high in the Andes Mountains at an altitude of 3,656 meters above sea level, lies Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt desert. This vast expanse covers an area of 10,582 square kilometers, making it approximately the size of Lebanon. It is a remnant of a prehistoric lake and boasts a thick salt crust reaching over 10 meters in some areas. The flat surface transforms into a giant mirror reflecting the endless sky during the dry season. Travelers from all over the world come to Salar de Uyuni to witness this awe-inspiring natural wonder. The seemingly infinite horizon creates mind-bending optical illusions that leave everyone in awe.

view on wadi rum desert the most beautiful desert in the world

The most beautiful desert in the world​

Wadi Rum Desert, a part of the Arabian Desert, is our home, and we believe it to be the most stunning desert in the world, although we acknowledge that this is a subjective opinion. Our desert is mountainous and features towering cliffs, beautifully shaped mountains, and sandstone rock formations in shades of yellow, orange, and red. These formations rise from wide sandy valleys, creating a surreal and dramatic landscape adorned with sand dunes. The elements have shaped the formations over time, resulting in a unique and almost otherworldly scene. The desert is also home to tens of thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions that tell the stories of ancient civilizations. 

Invitation to discover Wadi Rum desert

As Bedouins of Wadi Rum, we pride ourselves on our hospitality and warmly welcome all visitors. Under a sky filled with billions of stars, Wadi Rum offers an unforgettable desert experience that provides a sense of timelessness, tranquility, freedom, and peace rarely found and experienced in our fast-paced lives. We invite you to unleash your inner explorer and experience the enchanting beauty of Wadi Rum firsthand by joining one of our adventures. Our Wadi Rum tours allow you to discover our incredible desert’s stunning natural landscapes, rich history, and peaceful surroundings, and you can create desert memories for life. Please visit our Wadi Rum tours page for a complete list of our packages.

Team Wadi Rum Nomads

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