The 10 Largest Deserts In The World

Deserts are usually considered to be hot, arid areas with vast stretches of sand and dry earth. While this is certainly the case for some regions, all do not fit this description. Precipitation, not sand and heat, determine what areas are deserts. Deserts are found in all continents of the world but the nature and size of these deserts vary greatly. Since deserts are associated with difficult living conditions, they are often some of the world's most sparsely populated regions. In this article, we explore the world's largest deserts. 

1. Antarctic Desert - 14.2 million sq. km

The continent of Antarctica is the world's driest place.
The continent of Antarctica is the world's driest place.

The Antarctic is classified as a polar desert. Measuring 5.5 million square miles (14.2 million sq. km), it is the largest desert in the world. Unlike most global deserts, the Antarctic covers the entire continent. In fact, an astonishing 98 percent is permanently covered by a sheet of ice. It is considered a desert because it rains on average only 10 mm every year. Some experts even believe that certain parts located away from the coast have not had rain in the past 14 million years.

2. Arctic Desert - 13.9 million sq. km

The extremely low precipitation in the Arctic region makes it classify as a cold desert.
The extremely low precipitation in the Arctic region makes it classify as a cold desert.

The Arctic tundra is the only other polar desert in the world. It spans numerous northern countries, including Canada, Greenland, and Russia. It is second only to the Antarctic, measuring a whopping 5.4 million square miles (13.9 million sq. km). It is also considered a desert due to the lack of precipitation; the frigid air is too cold to hold moisture. While it gets more rain than the Antarctic, it still only receives approximately six to ten inches a year.   

3. Sahara Desert - 9.0 million sq. km

The world's largest hot desert, the Sahara Desert.
The world's largest hot desert, the Sahara Desert.

The Sahara is the largest subtropical desert in the world, clocking in at 3.5 million square miles (9 million sq. km). Spanning eleven countries, it covers nearly an entire third of Africa. It is most known for its scorching hot climate and mountainous sand dunes that reach as high as 183 meters. Despite these harsh conditions, it is home to numerous desert animals, including camels, lizards, and scorpions. Water sources are rare, but the Sahara does have two rivers and twenty seasonal lakes.

4. Arabian Desert - 2.6 million sq. km

Map showing the Arabian Desert covering most of the Middle East region.
Map showing the Arabian Desert covering most of the Middle East region.

The Arabian is the world’s second largest subtropical desert. Spanning most of the Arabian Peninsula in Asia, it measures approximately 1.0 million square miles (2.6 million sq. km). It is a barren and sandy landscape, but is surprisingly rich in natural resources, such as oil and sulfur. Summer temperatures can go as high as fifty degrees Celsius during the day, but drop drastically at night. Locust and dung beetles are native to this bleak region.

5. Gobi Desert - 1.3 million sq. km

The Gobi Desert in Asia.
The Gobi Desert in Asia.

The Gobi Desert is the fifth largest desert in the world. Spanning parts of Mongolia and China, it measures 0.5 million square miles (1.3 million sq. km). Its terrain is mostly rocks and hard-packed earth, which made it a valuable trade route throughout history. Like all traditional semiarid deserts, the Gobi experiences extremely high temperatures during the summer and frigid temperatures during the winter. It is also considered a rain shadow desert because the Himalayas block out all rainy weather.

6. Patagonian Desert - 0.67 million sq. km

Map showing the extent of the Patagonian Desert in South America.
Map showing the extent of the Patagonian Desert in South America.

Located in Argentina, the Patagonian Desert—also known as the Patagonian Steppe—is the sixth largest desert in the world. It measures roughly 0.26 million square miles (0.67 million sq. km). To the west lie the Andes, the world’s longest mountain range, and to the east, the Atlantic Ocean. As a semiarid desert, it shares similar characteristics with the Gobi desert. Frost covers the ground during the winter season, but snow is unusual due to the dryness of the region.

7. Great Victoria Desert - 0.65 million sq. km

Map showing the extent Great Victoria Desert in Australia.
Map showing the extent Great Victoria Desert in Australia.

The Great Victoria is a subtropical desert located in Australia. It is the seventh largest desert in the world, clocking in at 0.25 million square miles (0.65 million sq. km). It is a harsh environment of sand, rocks, hard packed-earth, and grassland. During the summer, temperatures rise up to forty degrees Celsius. As with most subtropical deserts, it is cooler during the winter, but still fairly hot. The Great Victoria receives an average of eight to ten inches of rain every year.

8. Kalahari Desert - 0.56 million sq. km

The Kalahari Desert in Africa covers parts of three countries
The Kalahari Desert in Africa covers parts of three countries

The Kalahari is a subtropical desert located in southern Africa. Spanning parts of Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, it is the eighth largest desert in the world at 0.22 million square miles (0.56 million sq. km). Interestingly, it is classified as a semi-desert as it receives four to eight inches of rain per year, but twenty during special wet years—ten more than what is generally accepted for a region to be considered a desert. Wild animals such as meerkat, hyena, kudu, and wildebeest call this region home.

9. Great Basin Desert - 0.49 million sq. km

The Great Basin Desert in the United States.
The Great Basin Desert in the United States.

At 0.19 million square miles (0.49 million sq. km), the Great Basin is one of the “big four” deserts in North America. It spans multiple states, covering most of Nevada and Utah. Located directly north of the Mojave Desert, it is a dry expanse of clay, silt, and sand; however, as a semiarid desert, it receives a fair amount of snow during the winter months. It is said that at 4,950 years old, a local Bristlecone Pine is the world’s oldest living thing.

9. Syrian Desert - 0.49 million sq. km

Map of the Syrian Desert.
Map of the Syrian Desert.

The Syrian—also known as the Syrian or Jordanian Steppe—is the tenth largest desert in the world, measuring approximately 0.19 million square miles (0.49 million sq. km). It spans multiple Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Despite its name, it covers more of Jordan than Syria. As a subtropical desert, it is a barren landscape of rock and gravel. What wildlife is able to thrive in such an environment is currently under threat from drought, over-grazing, and hunting.

The Effects Of Climate Change On Desertification

Human-made climate change is having a severe impact on our global deserts. It is common knowledge that the melting ice caps are shrinking the polar deserts, but global warming is also leading to higher rates of desertification—the process where fertile land becomes dry and arid. Pollution and other human activities are creating droughts and wildfires, and increasing levels of salt in the ground, which is ultimately causing subtropical and semiarid desert regions to expand and rise in temperature. Just like polar bears, this is also negatively impacting the local wildlife. Even animals such as lizards who normally thrive in these types of hot environments are struggling with desertification.

Map showing the world's 10 largest deserts.
Map showing the world's 10 largest deserts.

The Sahara is the best example to illustrate the above. A study conducted in 2018 shows that it has grown by ten percent since 1920. Deserts generally increase in size during dry seasons and decrease during wet seasons, but humans are interfering with this natural cycle, causing deserts to grow faster than they are shrinking. In fact, an entire third of the Sahara’s current size is due to climate change. Approximately 33 percent of the Earth’s land is covered by desert. Unless we change our ways, this number could increase drastically throughout the coming years.

Rank Desert Area in million sq. mi Area in million sq. km Type
1 Antarctic 5.5 14.2 Polar
2 Arctic 5.4 13.9 Polar
3 Sahara 3.5 9.0 Subtropical
4 Arabian 1.0 2.6 Subtropical
5 Gobi 0.5 1.3 Cold winter
6 Patagonian 0.26 0.67 Cold winter
7 Great Victoria 0.25 0.65 Subtropical
8 Kalahari 0.22 0.56 Subtropical
9 Great Bain 0.19 0.49 Cold winter
9 Syrian 0.19 0.49 Subtropical
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