The Sahara Desert is the largest "hot" desert in the world, stretching across a massive area of 8,600,000 square kilometers. The desert encompasses large parts of North Africa, and stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Mediterranean in the north and the Red Sea to the east, including parts of 11 North African countries within its boundaries. The southern boundaries of the desert are marked by the Sahel region, a transition zone between the desert towards the north and the humid savannas of the south. Cairo in Egypt, Tripoli in Libya, Agadez in Niger, and Faya-Largeau in Chad are some of the important African cities located within the boundaries of the Sahara itself.
Evidence indicates that the Sahara desert region was inhabited at least as far back as 6,000 BCE, and probably even well before that. During the Neolithic Era, the Sahara was, unlike the present times, quite fertile, and was occupied by advanced human settlements, especially in the region of Nubia (modern-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The Egyptians arrived onto the scene sometime around 6,000 BCE, and practiced agriculture and animal herding in the Sahara region. The extension of desertification due to a shift in the Earth’s orbit in later time periods led to the abandonment of large parts of the Sahara, and the migration of populations to arable lands with better water access, such as those along the Nile. In the time period between 1200 BCE and 800 BCE, the land around the Sahara was occupied by the Berber-speaking Phoenicians. Later, Greeks, Byzantines, Muslim caliphates, and Ottomans all established their own territories in the Sahara at different periods in the history of the desert. The European colonization of the Sahara Desert started in the 19th Century and, following the end of the Second World War, most of the African Saharan countries gained their own independence.
The Sahara region in Northern Africa is currently occupied by a population of around 4 million people. These are still inclusive of a significant proportion of nomads practicing a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, settling down temporarily in the oases regions where water availability is higher than other regions of the desert. The region has rich mineral deposits as well, with iron ore, copper ore, uranium, manganese, and phosphate being some of the most commercially important minerals mined in this region. Coal, oil, and natural gas fields have also been discovered in the Sahara. The excavation of land in search of oil and mineral deposits has also unraveled underground sources of water, with future potential for use in developing agriculture in the desert's habitats. Traditional desert products with economic significance include animal wool and skins, salt, dates, and certain other fruits. The abundant source of solar energy available in the desert habitat can also be harnessed in the future to develop renewable sources of energy. However, the harsh climate currently acts as a barrier to the establishment of renewable energy plants on a large scale.
Habitat and Biodiversity
Precipitation in the Sahara Desert is extremely low, averaging below 25 millimeters per year. The desert is also one of the hottest regions of the world, with an average annual temperature of 30° Celsius. The highest temperature ever recorded in the Sahara was 58° Celsius (136o Fahrenheit). As evident from the harsh climatic conditions, the Sahara Desert supports only plant and animal life that has sufficiently adapted to survive in its hot and dry habitats. Heat- and drought-tolerant plants and halophytes sparsely populate the vast desert region. Olive, cypress, and mastic trees are some of the woody plants that grow in the highlands of the Sahara. Species of Acacia, date palms, herbs such as thyme, and grasses like Aristida and Panicum are some of the other plant species of the desert. The fauna of the Sahara Desert is distributed in sparse concentrations across various parts of its habitats. Mammalian species of the desert include Desert hedgehogs, Jerboas (a small rodent), Crepes, Spotted hyenas, Sand foxes, Libyan Striped weasels, and gazelles. Ostriches, Guinea fowl, Desert eagle owls, and Sand larks are some of the avian species of these habitats. Reptiles, including Cobras, Sand vipers, Monitor lizards, Chameleons, and Crocodiles, are also to be spotted in the Sahara.
Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes
Since the Sahara desert is only sparsely populated, and that population significantly comprised by nomadic hunter-gatherers, human activities have not posed as serious of threats to the desert's habitat as they have many other of the world's unique environs. Still, the indiscriminate hunting of wild animals for food, sport, and recreation has severely brought down their numbers, and some species, like the Addax (White antelope), have become critically threatened with extinction. Interestingly, the effects of climate change, which is increasing the rate of desertification in most of the habitats of the world, is possibly leading to a greening of the Sahara. In fact, increasing rainfall in the region has been reported by scientists studying the Saharan environments. As per National Geographic News, trees such as acacias are now markedly flourishing in the Sahara Desert, and Saharan shrubs are also increasing in size and number.