The 10 Largest Deserts in the World

Though many of the world's largest desert are characterized by heat and sand, the largest deserts on the planet will surprise you.

A desert is an area that receives a significantly small amount of rainfall. There can be either hot deserts or cold deserts. Most deserts are quite barren, as the dry living conditions are too hostile to host plant and animal life.

It is estimated that about one third of the land surface of the earth is either arid or semi-arid. Deserts are classified by a number of factors including:

  • Amount of rain received.
  • Causes behind desertification.
  • Prevailing temperatures.
  • Geographical location.

Animals and plants that live in deserts have special adaptations to help them survive the tough and hostile environment. For many generations, people have occupied desert regions as well. Traditionally, these people have been known as "nomads", a word used to describe desert-dwelling groups of people who move from area to area depending on grazing opportunities and water access.

10. Great Basin Desert - 190,000 Square Miles

The Great Basin Desert is the largest desert in the United States of America. It covers a land surface area of about 190,000 square miles. It is bordered by the Rocky Mountains to the east, the Sierra Nevada range to the west, the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts to the south, and the Columbia Plateau in the north.

The Great Basin Desert is a cold desert with precipitation totalling 7-12 inches per year. Its climate is characterized by extremely hot summers and snowy, cold winters.

9. Syrian Desert - 200,000 Square Miles

The Syrian Desert is unique for being a combination of a true desert and a steppe (a word meaning low grasslands). It is located in the north of the Arabian Peninsula in Syria.

The Syrian Desert occupies about 200,000 square miles of total landmass. The desert is flat, but very rocky. The landscape was formed by lava flows emanating from volcanic activities in the region of Jebel Druze in Syria. The Syrian Desert covers parts of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

8. Patagonian Desert - 200,000 Square Miles

The Patagonian Desert is the largest desert in the South American nation of Argentina, occupying a land surface area totalling about 200,000 square miles. It is primarily located in Argentina, though it also extends into parts of Chile.

Patagonia is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Andes Mountains to the west. It is a cold winter desert, with temperatures rarely exceeding 12 degrees Celsius. The average temperature is only 3 degrees Celsius. The desert is relatively windy due to the descending mountain air.

7. Great Victoria Desert - 220,000 Square Miles

The Great Victoria Desert is the largest desert in Australia, occupying about 220,000 square miles. It stretches from the Gawler Ranges of South Australia to the Eastern Goldfields region in Western Australia.

Thunderstorms are very common in the Great Victoria Desert, with an average of about 15-20 thunderstorms per year. During winter, temperatures in the Great Victoria fall to around 20 degrees Celsius, while during summer the temperature ranges from 32-40 degrees Celsius. Rainfall is erratic from year to year and generally low, typically ranging from 200-250 mm per annum.

6. Kalahari Desert - 360,000 Square Miles

The Kalahari Desert is a vast, semi-arid savanna found in southern Africa. The Kalahari covers a land surface of about 360,000 square miles. It covers parts of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.

The desert has large areas that are covered with red sand without permanent surface water drainage. It has seasonally inundated pans (dry basins or beds), dry valleys and salt pans. The Okavango is the only permanent river in the Kalahari Desert, - it flows to a delta in the northwest of the desert. The Kalahari Desert is home to some vegetation, mostly in the form of desert plants such as certain cactus species and shrubs.

5. Gobi Desert - 500,000 Square Miles

The Gobi Desert covers parts of northwestern and northern China, as well as the south of Mongolia. It occupies about 500,000 square miles of total land area.

The Gobi Desert is sometimes called the “rain shadow desert”, as the proximity of the desert to the Himalayan Mountains blocks rainfall, as it keeps clouds from the Indian Ocean from reaching the Gobi. Most of the Gobi’s surface is not sandy, but rather exposed, bare rock. It is a cold desert and snow occasionally will accumulate on its dunes.

4. Arabian Desert - 900,000 Square Miles

The Arabian Desert is found in western Asia where it covers most of the Arabian Peninsula. It is one of the largest deserts on earth, with a land surface of about 900,000 square miles. It engulfs much of Yemen, the Persian Gulf, Oman, Jordan and Iraq.

Its center, Rub ’al-Khali, or the “Empty Quarter”, forms the largest continuous body of sand in the world. The climate of this area is very dry, while temperatures oscillate between regular, characteristically high heat on one end of the spectrum, and seasonal nighttime freezes on the other. The annual rainfall is around 100mm on average, but the driest areas receive as little as 30-40 mm of rain a year.

3. Sahara Desert - 3,500,000 Square Miles

The Sahara Desert is the third largest desert in the world, and the world's largest “hot desert”. The Sahara Desert occupies a surface area of about 3.5 million square miles. This desert accounts for most of the land in North Africa, excluding the fertile regions of Maghreb, the Atlas Mountains and the coastal region adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the desert is comprised of rocky hamada (a barren rocky landscape).

The landscape of the Sahara Desert is constantly being reshaped by both winds and the the extremely low amount of rainfall received in the area. The central part of the desert is “hyper-arid”, which means that there is no vegetation growing in this area. Most of the rivers in the Sahara Desert are intermittent and seasonal. The major exception is the Nile, which is the chief river that runs across the desert.

2. Arctic Desert - 5,400,000 Square Miles

The Arctic Desert is the second largest desert in the world, covering a land surface of about 5.4 million square miles. The desert partially occupies parts of territories claimed or controlled by Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. As a cold desert, winter temperatures dip to -40 degrees Celsius or below. The desert is characterized by high winds that stir up snow, which creates an illusion of persistent and continuous snowfall.

The Arctic is very vulnerable to climate change. In recent years, alarms have been raised over the reduction in the amount of sea ice in the area. The shrinking of the Arctic Desert is especially concerning as it could have a serious impact on global water levels.

1. Antarctic Desert - 5,500,000 Square Miles

Antarctica is the largest desert in the world. Located around the South Pole, it is the driest, windiest, and coldest continent on earth. It also has the highest average elevation on earth compared to any other continent. The entirety of Antarctica is a desert - the continent receives less than 200mm of precipitation every year. Temperatures on Antarctica are generally very cold, and may drop as low as -89 degree Celsius in winter.

Partially due to these extremes temperatures and a lack of water, there are no permanent residents in Antarctica. Temporary residents number from 1,000 to 5,000 depending on the time of year. These groups consist mainly of scientific researchers and their supporting personnel. The Antarctic Desert covers a total area about 5.5 million square miles. Due to the glare of sun off of the ice, sunburn and vision problems are a concern to people in Antarctica.

The Largest Deserts in the World

RankNameArea (Miles Squared)
4Arabian Desert2,330,000
5Gobi Desert1,000,000
6Kalahari Desert900,000
7Great Victoria Desert647,000
8Patagonian Desert620,000
9Syrian Desert520,000
10Great Basin Desert492,000
11Chihuahuan Desert450,000
12Great Sandy Desert400,000
13Karakum Desert350,000
14Colorado Plateau337,000
15Sonoran Desert310,000
16Kyzylkum Desert300,000
17Taklamakan Desert270,000
18Thar Desert200,000
19Gibson Desert156,000
20Dasht-e Margo150,000
21Registan Desert146,000
22Simpson Desert145,000
23Atacama Desert140,000
24Mojave Desert124,000
25Namib Desert81,000

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