The 10 Largest Deserts in the World

By James Burton on August 23 2019 in Environment

The dunes of the Sahara Desert in Libya.
The dunes of the Sahara Desert in Libya.

A desert is an area that receives little precipitation. Deserts can be hot or cold. Most deserts are quite barren as the dry conditions are too hostile to most plant and animal life. Desert flora and fauna have special adaptations that help them survive the harsh environment. Humans also dwell in desert areas. Traditionally, they have led nomadic lives. According to estimates, about one-third of the terrestrial surface area of the Earth is either arid or semi-arid. The largest deserts in the world have been mentioned below.

10. Great Basin Desert - 190,000 Square Miles

The Great Basin Desert is the largest desert in the United States of America and the 10th biggest one in the world. It covers an 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 of about 7 to 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 a unique combination of a true desert, semi-arid landscape, and steppe. It is located in the Middle East where it covers parts of SyriaJordanIraq, and Saudi Arabia. To the south, the Syrian Desert merges with the Arabian Desert. 85% and 55% of the land area of Joran and Syria respectively are occupied by the Syrian Desert.

8. Patagonian Desert - 200,000 Square Miles 

The Patagonian Desert is the world's eighth most extensive desert and the largest one in Argentina. It occupies an area of about 200,000 square miles. It is primarily located in Argentina, though it also extends into parts of Chile. The Patagonian Desert is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Andes Mountains to the west. It is a cold desert with temperatures rarely exceeding 12 degrees Celsius. The average annual 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 Desert fall to around 20 degrees Celsius, while during summer the temperature ranges from 32 to 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 NamibiaBotswana, 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 southern 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. The mountains prevent the rain-causing monsoon winds from reaching the Gobi. Most of the Gobi’s surface is not sandy but rather exposed, bare rock. It is a cold desert and occasionally snow accumulates 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 the fourth largest desert on earth. It encompasses an area 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. Temperatures oscillate between regular, characteristically high heat on one end of the spectrum to seasonal nighttime freezes on the other. The annual rainfall is around 100mm on average, but the driest areas receive as little as 30 to 40 mm of rain a year.

3. Sahara Desert - 3,300,000 Square Miles 

The Sahara Desert is the third-largest desert in the world, and the world's largest “hot desert.” It occupies a surface area of about 3.3 million square miles. This desert occupies most of the land in North Africa except for the fertile regions of the Maghreb, the Atlas Mountains, and the coastal region adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the desert is a barren rocky landscape. The central part of the Sahara is “hyper-arid,” which means that there is no vegetation growing in this area. Most of the rivers in the Sahara Desert are intermittent or seasonal.

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 CanadaDenmarkNorwayRussiaSweden, 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 in 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 of about 5.5 million square miles. Due to the glare of the sun off of the ice, sunburn and vision problems are a concern to people in Antarctica.

The Largest Deserts in the World

RankDesertArea (Sq km)Area (Sq mi)
4Arabian Desert2,330,000900,000
5Gobi Desert1,295,000500,000
6Kalahari Desert900,000360,000
7Great Victoria Desert647,000220,000
8Patagonian Desert620,000200,000
9Syrian Desert520,000200,000
10Great Basin Desert492,000190,000
11Chihuahuan Desert362,600140,000
12Karakum Desert350,000140,000
13Colorado Plateau336,700130,000
14Taklamakan Desert337,000130,000
15Kyzylkum Desert298,000115,000
16Great Sandy Desert285,000110,000
17Sonoran Desert260,000100,000
18Thar Desert200,00077,000
19Gibson Desert155,00060,000
20Dasht-e Margo150,00057,000

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