The 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 characterized as an area whose landscape receives a significantly small amount of rainfall throughout the year. This land is mostly barren, since the dry living conditions make animal and plant life therein hostile. Nonetheless, it is estimated that about one third of the land surface of the earth is either arid or semi-arid. Deserts are classified depending on the amount of rain that falls, the causes of desertification there, their prevailing temperature, and by their geographical location. Animals and plants that live in deserts have special adaptations to help them survive the tough and hostile environment. Similarly, for many generations people have struggled to occupy desert regions as well. Nomads are desert-dwelling groups of people who mostly have moved with their flocks from area to area depending on where there are grazing opportunities available and the sporadic accessibility of the oases that have enabled windows of opportunity for settled life within these deserts.

10. Great Basin Desert - 190,000 Square Miles

#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, and the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts to the south, while the Columbia Plateau borders the desert to the north. This is a cold desert with precipitation of 7-12 inches per annum. Its climate is characterized by extremes of dry, hot summers and snowy, cold winters.

9. Syrian Desert - 200,000 Square Miles

#9 Syrian Desert - 200,000 Square Miles

This desert is a combination of a true desert and a steppe. It is located in the north of the Arabian Peninsula in Syria. It 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

#8 Patagonian Desert - 200,000 Square Miles

This 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 parts extend into Chile. Patagonia is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Andes Mountains to the west. It is a cold winter desert, and temperatures there rarely exceed 12 degrees celsius, and average only 3 degrees celsius. The desert is relatively windy due to the descending mountain air and the rain shadow effect.

7. Great Victoria Desert - 220,000 Square Miles

#7 Great Victoria Desert - 220,000 Square Miles

The Great Victoria Desert, with its characteristic, numerous sand hills, 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 this desert, with an average of about 15-20 thunderstorms per year. During winter, temperatures in Great Victoria fall to around 20 degrees celsius, while during summer the temperature ranges from 32-40 degrees celsius. Rainfall is erratic form year to year and low overall, typically ranging from 200-250 mm per annum.

6. Kalahari Desert - 360,000 Square Miles

#6 Kalahari Desert - 360,000 Square Miles

This is a vast, semi-arid savanna 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 which 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, which flows to a delta in the northwest.

5. Gobi Desert - 500,000 Square Miles

#5 Gobi Desert - 500,000 Square Miles

Located in Asia, it covers parts of northwestern and northern China, and extends into the south of Mongolia. It occupies about 500,000 square miles of land surface. The Gobi is termed as a “rain shadow desert”, as it is in the lee-ward side of the Himalaya ranges which block the rain (“rain shadow”), keeping clouds from the Indian Ocean from reaching 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

#4 Arabian Desert - 900,000 Square Miles

This desert is located in far Western Asia, covering most of the Arabian Peninsula. 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, the “Empty Quarter”, forms the largest continuous body of sand in the world. The climate 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 - 3,500,000 Square Miles

#3 Sahara - 3,500,000 Square Miles

The Sahara Desert is the third largest desert overall, and the largest “hot desert” in the world. It occupies a surface area of about 3.5 million square miles. This desert comprises 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, large land areas covered with sand dunes. The land surface is constantly being reshaped by winds and, far less frequently, the extremely low and rare rainfall. The central part of the desert is termed as “hyper-arid”, and there is no vegetation growing there as a result of the virtually nonexistent precipitation. Most of the rivers are intermittent and seasonal. The major exception is the Nile, which is the chief river across the desert.

2. Arctic - 5,400,000 Square Miles

#2 Arctic - 5,400,000 Square Miles

This desert occupies the “North Pole” region. The Arctic Desert forms the second largest desert globally, 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. Precipitation generally occurs as snow, and winter temperatures can drop to less than -40 degrees celsius. The desert is characterized by high winds which stir up snow, creating an illusion of persistent and continuous snowfall. The Arctic is very vulnerable to climate change. There has been a reduction of the sea ice there, increasingly raising concerns over Arctic ice cover shrinkage due to global warming, which could have profound impacts on weather patterns globally.

1. Antarctica - 5,500,000 Square Miles

#1 Antarctica - 5,500,000 Square Miles

Antarctica is considered to be the most extreme continent on earth, and is located around the South Pole. On average, it is the driest, windiest, and coldest continent on earth, while also having the highest average elevation compared to any of the other continents. The entirety of Antarctica is a desert with an annual precipitation of less than 200mm. The temperatures are generally very cold, and may drop as low as -89 degree Celsius in winter, and as high as around 15 degrees celsius in the summer at times in some coastal places. For this reason, there are no permanent residents there. Temporary residents, ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 throughout the year, consist mainly of scientific researchers and their supporting personnel. The Antarctic Desert covers a total area about 5.5 million square miles. Sunburn and vision problems are a concern to people in Antarctica, due to the glare of sun off of the ice.

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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