Africa & Middle East

The 9 Most Extreme Deserts in the World

We know our amazing planet is home to a stunning array of different climates and geographies. From the highest mountains to the lowest valleys, from the coldest places on earth to the warmest, Mother Nature has covered just about every extreme we can think of. Deserts are one of those extremes—typically very dry areas, often with an unforgiving climate and temperatures wild enough to break thermometers. But not all deserts are created equal; for these 9 deserts, just being a desert wasn’t enough and Mother Nature decided to dial it up to 11.

9. Great Basin Desert

The boundaries of the Great Basin Desert are actually somewhat fuzzy, but most people agree on one thing: it’s the largest desert in North America, even if we aren’t quite sure just how big it is. Like the deserts of South America, the Great Basin Desert was created by the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Encompassing most of Nevada and stretching into California, Idaho and Utah, the desert is known for its extreme temperatures: daytime temperatures exceed 32°C (90°F) and then drop as low as 4°C (40°F) at night. Summers are hot and dry, while winters are cold and snowy thanks to frigid alpine ridges. Although temperatures can be more extreme in the nearby Mojave and Sonoran deserts, the Great Basin Desert owes its more “moderate” climate to its elevation: there are up to 33 peaks that exceed 3,000 m (9,800 ft)!

great basin desert

8. Great Victoria Desert

Mention of Australia tends to evoke images of the Outback, a desert area with little life and harsh climates. While much of the continent is covered by arid areas, it’s not just one big desert. The Great Victoria Desert, located in south and western Australia, is the largest of all Australian deserts, covering approximately 350,000 km (135,000 miles). Average rainfall is irregular, ranging between 200 and 250 mm (8 and 10 inches). The temperature is also variable: daily highs can reach 40°C (104°F) in the summer, and lows of about 18°C (64°F) in the winter. Thunderstorms happen with frequency; on average, 15 to 20 thunderstorms will take place in the desert annually. The Great Victoria Desert is close to several other deserts: the Little Sandy and Gibson deserts lie to the north, while the Triari and Sturt Stony deserts are to the east.

Great Victoria Desert

7. Sahara Desert

If someone says desert, you likely think of miles of rolling sand dunes, winds gusting along across them. You probably think of a sweltering sun and maybe a caravan traveling by camel through the area. Welcome to the Sahara Desert, the world’s largest hot desert—and the prototype for all other “deserts.” The Sahara is such the textbook desert that its very name is just the Arabic word for desert and it’s sometimes known as “The Great Desert.” The Sahara spans nearly 9.5 million km (3.6 million miles) in Northern Africa, making it the third-largest desert, after the Arctic and Antarctic. While the Sahara does have ergs (or sand seas) and dunes can be over 180 m (590 ft) tall, most of the geography is hamada, or rocky plains. The Sahara is comprised of several “subdeserts,” such as the Libyan desert, which rivals the Atacama as the world’s driest place.

Sahara Desert

6. Kalahari Desert

The Sahara is Africa’s most famous desert; in fact, it’s probably the most famous desert in the world. That means that the Kalahari, located in the southern portion of the African continent, gets relatively little attention. Even though it’s not as expansive or as well-known as its northern cousin, the Kalahari is impressive in its own right. Although only parts of the Kalahari can be classified as a “true” desert, receiving less than 10 inches of rain per year, the Kalahari is thought to cover around nearly 1 million km (or 350,000 miles). Its age is also impressive: geological studies show it seems to have been in existence since the continent of Africa was formed, around 60 million years ago. Summers here reach extreme temperatures, daily temperatures sometimes soaring close to 45°C (113°F). The Kalahari is also notable for its characteristic red sands.


5. Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert stretches for over 1 million km (500,000 miles) across northwestern China and southern Mongolia. The desert is a rain shadow formation; the high peaks of the Himalayas block rain-carrying clouds from the Indian Ocean from reaching the Gobi, resulting in an area that receives annual rainfall of less than 8 inches; much of the precipitation the desert does receive occurs in winter, as wicked winds blow in moisture from the Siberian steppes. While there are some sand dunes, much of the Gobi is simply barren or exposed rock. The Gobi’s climate is an extreme one, with frigid winters and hot summers; temperatures can fluctuate as much as 35°C in the span of 24 hours. More alarming is that the Gobi has been expanding at a rate of about 3,600 km (1,390 miles) per year and dust storms have been increasing in frequency over the last 20 years.

Gobi Desert

4. Arabian Desert

Much as the Sahara is the name on everyone’s lips when they talk about deserts, the Arabian Desert is likely what everyone pictures. This tract of 2 million+ km (900,000 miles) stretches through Yemen to the Persian Gulf and Oman, to Jordan and Iraq. This vast swath of wilderness is home to some isolated sand seas; the center of the desert is the Rub’al-Khali, one of the largest continuous bodies of sand in the world. Since the area is so large, it is possible to subdivide it into different regions; some areas receive 100 mm of rain per year, while other areas receive as little as 50 mm of rainfall. Daytime temperatures soar and drop at night, sometimes to the point of freezing. Record highs exceed 50°C (122°F). In addition, the desert receives around 3,400 hours of sunshine per year, making it one of the sunniest places on earth.

Arabian Desert

3. Patagonian Desert

South America has a reputation for tropical rainforests, but the truth is that the topography of the continent is highly varied, from the wetlands of the Amazon to the peaks of the Andes to the arid region of the Atacama. But the Atacama isn’t the only desert in South America—not by a long stretch. The Patagonian Desert, near the southern tip of the continent, is actually the largest South American desert and the seventh-largest in the world. Located primarily in Argentina, with small portions in Chile, the Patagonian Desert forms 673,000 km (260,000 miles) of the region of Patagonia. Like the Atacama, this desert lies in the rainshadow of the Andes. The weather, however, is colder: the temperature averages just 3°C and rarely exceeds 12°C. Winter lasts for 7 months of the year and even in summer, frost is common.

Patagonian Desert

2. Atacama Desert

I’ve written a bit about the Atacama Desert before, but this expanse in northern Chile is well-known for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the Atacama is known as the driest place on the planet. Straddling the area between 2 mountain ranges, the Andes and the Chilean Coastal mountains, the Atacama exists in a double-rain shadow, which excludes it from getting moisture from either the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. It’s estimated that the Atacama has experienced this aridity for at least 3 million years (if not even longer), making it the oldest continuously dry area on earth. Data suggest that, from 1590 to 1971, the Atacama experienced no significant rainfall. These days, annual rainfall is about 15 mm (0.6 inches). The Atacama has long been compared to Mars; film and television producers film Martian settings in the desert and NASA researchers have used the Atacama as a test location.

Atacama Desert hand

1. Antarctica

We typically think of deserts as hot, dry places like the Sahara; in fact, when someone says “desert,” we often think of sand and sun. But deserts, in their most scientific sense, are actually classified by the amount of precipitation they receive. That means that cold polar places, which receive relatively little snowfall, are actually deserts too. Using this criteria, Antarctica is the largest desert in the world, averaging just 166 mm (6.5 inches) of precipitation each year. The continent spans 14 million km (5.4 million miles), making this desert much larger than the Sahara. Although we’d typically think of Antarctica as a “wet” place, thanks to an abundance of snow and ice, the simple fact of the matter is that the temperatures on the continent are so cold and the air is so dry that precipitation—as snow or rain—just doesn’t happen.