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When you think about the answer to ‘what is the largest desert in the world?’, you think of sand dunes and unrelenting sun. To be considered a desert an area must have less than 250 millimeters of annual rainfall. Using that criteria, the continent of Antarctica is the largest desert on Earth. It has less than 51mm of precipitation per year and little or no vegetation. If you think that a desert can not be covered in ice and snow, then the Sahara Desert would be the largest desert.
Antarctica is the southernmost continent. At 14.0 million square km, it is the fifth-largest continent in area and the smallest by population. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice, which averages 1.6 km. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent. It is considered a desert because its annual precipitation can be less than 51 mm in the interior. There are no permanent human residents, but anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 researchers inhabit the research stations scattered across the continent. Only cold-adapted plants and animals survive here: penguins, seals, mites, algaes, and tundra vegetation.
The Sahara is what most people envision when they think of a desert. It is the world’s largest hot weather desert, covering over 9,400,000 square km. It is nearly as large as the United States. Some of the sand dunes are 180 m in height. Unlike Antarctica, The Sahara region is heavily populated. It is home to a number of people and languages. Arabic is the most widely spoken language. The Berber people are found from western Egypt to Morocco and the Beja live in the Red Sea Hills.
You can use the answer to ‘what is the largest desert in the world’ as a bit of trivia to start a conversation at parties or a family get together. It would be interesting to keep track of how many people know the right answer.
We have written many articles about Desert for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the percentage of the Earth’s land surface that is desert, and here’s are pictures of desert.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.