What is the Largest Desert on Earth?

Antarctica

When you hear the word desert, what comes to mind? Chances are, you’d think of sun, sand, and very little in the way of rain. Perhaps cacti, vultures, mesas, and scorpions come to mind as well, or possibly camels and oases? But in truth, deserts come in all shapes and sizes, and vary considerably from one part of the world to the next.

Like all of Earth’s climates, it all comes down to some basic characteristics that they share – which in this case, involves being barren, dry, and hostile to life. For this reason, you might be surprised to learn that the largest desert in the world is actually in Antarctica. How’s that for a curveball?

Definition:

To break it down, a desert is a region that is simply very dry because its receives little to no water. To be considered a desert, an area must receive than 250 millimeters of annual precipitation. But precipitation can take the form of rain, snow, mist or fog – literally any form of water being transferred from the atmosphere to the earth.

The Lut Desert of Iran, as observed from space by NASA's Earth Observatory. Credit: NASA
The Lut Desert of Iran, as observed by NASA’s Earth Observatory. It was here that the hottest temperature ever was recorded between 2003-9. Credit: NASA

Deserts can also be described as areas where more water is lost by evaporation than falls as precipitation. This certainly applies in regions that are subject to “desertification”, where increasing temperatures (i.e. climate change) result in river beds drying up, precipitation patterns changing, and vegetation dying off.

Deserts are often some of the hottest and most inhospitable places on Earth, as exemplified by the Sahara Desert in Africa, the Gobi desert in northern China and Mongolia, and Death Valley in California. But they can also be cold, windswept landscapes where little to no snow ever falls – like in the Antarctic and Arctic.

So in the end, being hot has little to do with it. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that deserts are characterized by little to no moisture and extremes in temperature. All told, deserts make up one-third of the surface of the Earth. But most of that is found in the polar regions.

Antarctica:

In terms of sheer size, the Antarctic Desert is the largest desert on Earth, measuring a total of 13.8 million square kilometers. Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and most isolated continent on Earth, and is considered a desert because its annual precipitation can be less than 51 mm in the interior.

A Sun halo seen among the the landscape and ice flows of Antarctica. Credit and copyright: Alex Cornell.
A Sun halo seen among the the landscape and ice flows of Antarctica. Credit and copyright: Alex Cornell

It’s covered by a permanent ice sheet that contains 90% of the Earth’s fresh water. Only 2% of the continent isn’t covered by ice, and this land is strictly along the coasts, where all the life that is associated with the land mass (i.e. penguins, seals and various species of birds) reside. The other 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice which averages 1.6 km in thickness.

There are no permanent human residents, but anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 researchers inhabit the research stations scattered across the continent – the largest being McMurdo Station, located on the tip of Ross Island. Beyond a limited range of mammals, only certain cold-adapted species of mites, algaes, and tundra vegetation can survive there.

Despite having very little precipitation, Antarctica still experiences massive windstorms. Much like sandstorms in the desert, the high winds pick up snow and turn into blizzards. These storms can reach speeds of up to 320 km an hour (200 mph) and are one of the reasons the continent is so cold.

In fact, the coldest temperature ever recorded was taken at the Soviet Vostok Station on the Antarctic Plateau. Using ground-based measurements, the temperature reached a historic low of -89.2°C (-129°F) on July 21st, 1983. Analysis of satellite data indicated a probable temperature of around -93.2 °C (-135.8 °F; 180.0 K), also in Antarctica, on August 10th, 2010. However, this reading was not confirmed.

McMurdo station at night. Credit: m.earthtripper.com
Antarctica’s McMurdo Station at night. Credit: m.earthtripper.com

Other Deserts:

Interestingly, the second-largest desert in the world is also notoriously cold – The Arctic Desert. Located above 75 degrees north latitude, the Arctic Desert covers a total area of about 13.7 million square km (5.29 million square mi). Here, the total amount of precipitation is below 250mm (10 inches), which is predominantly in the form of snow.

The average temperature in the Arctic Desert is -20 °C, reaching as low as -50 °C in the winter. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Arctic Desert is its sunshine patterns. During the summer months, the sun doesn’t set for a period of 60 days. These are then followed in the winter by a period of prolonged darkness.

The third largest desert in the world is the more familiar Sahara, with a total size of 9.4 million square km. The average annual rainfall ranges from very low (in the northern and southern fringes of the desert) to nearly non-existent over the central and the eastern part. All told, most of the Saraha receives less than 20 mm (0.79 in).

However, in northern fringe of the desert, low pressure systems from the Mediterranean Sea result in an annual rainfall of between 100 to 250 mm (3.93 – 9.84 in). The southern fringe of the desert – which extends from coastal Mauritania to the Sudan and Eritrea – receives the same amount of rainfall from the south. The central core of the desert, which is extremely arid, experiences an annual rainfall of less than 1 mm (0.04 in).

Temperatures are also quite intense in the Sahara, and can rise to more than 50 °C. Interestingly, this is not the hottest desert on the planet though. The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 70.7 °C (159 °F), which was taken in the Lut Desert of Iran. These measurements were part of a global temperature survey conducted by scientists at NASA’s Earth Observatory during the summers of 2003 to 2009.

In short, deserts are not just sand dunes and places where you might come across Bedouins and Berbers, or a place you have to drive through to get to Napa Valley. They are common to every continent of the world, and can take the form of sandy deserts or icy deserts. In the end, the defining characteristic is their pronounced lack of moisture.

In that respect, the polar regions are the largest deserts in the world, with Antarctica narrowly beating out the Arctic for first place. And going by this definition – i.e. cold, arid, and with little to no precipitation – we’re sure to find some particularly big deserts elsewhere in Solar System. After all, what is Mars if not one big, cold, arid, and extremely dry climate?

We have written many articles about the Earth for Universe Today. Here is What Percent of the Earth’s Land Surface is Desert?, What is the Driest Place on Earth?, What is the Hottest Place on Earth?, What is the Earths’ Average Temperature?

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s What is Antarctica?, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

Sources:

In Fact It’s Cold As Hell: Mars Isn’t As Earthlike As It Might Look

The slopes of Gale Crater as seen by Curiosity are reminiscent of the American southwest (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“Mars ain’t no kind of place to raise your kids; in fact it’s cold as hell” sang Elton John in “Rocket Man”, and although the song was released in 1972 — four years before the first successful landing on Mars — his weather forecast was spot-on. Even though the fantastic images that are being returned from NASA’s Curiosity rover show a rocky, ruddy landscape that could easily be mistaken for an arid region of the American Southwest one must remember three things: this is Mars, we’re looking around the inside of an impact crater billions of years old, and it’s cold out there.

Mars Exploration Program blogger Jeffrey Marlow writes in his latest “Martian Diaries” post:

Over the first 30 sols, air temperature has ranged from approximately -103 degrees Fahrenheit (-75 Celsius) at night to roughly 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celsius) in the afternoon. Two factors conspire to cause such a wide daily range (most day-night fluctuations on Earth are about 10 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit). The martian atmosphere is very thin; with fewer molecules in the air to heat up and cool down, there’s more solar power to go around during the day, and less atmospheric warmth at night, so the magnitude of temperature shifts is amplified. There is also very little water vapor; water is particularly good at retaining its heat, and the dryness makes the temperature swings even more pronounced. 

In that way Mars is like an Earthly desert; even after a blisteringly hot day the temperatures can plummet at night, leaving an ill-prepared camper shivering beneath the cold glow of starlight. Except on Mars, where the Sun is only 50% as bright as on Earth and the atmosphere only 1% as dense, the nighttime lows dip to Arctic depths.

“Deserts on Earth have very extreme temperature ranges,” says Mars Science Laboratory Deputy Project Scientist, Ashwin Vasavada. “So if you take a desert on Earth and put it in a very thin atmosphere 50% farther from the Sun, you’d have something like what we’re seeing at Gale Crater.”

And although the afternoon temperatures in Gale may climb slightly above freezing that doesn’t mean liquid water will be found pooling about in any large amounts. Curiosity’s in no danger from flash floods on Mars… not these days, anyway.

With atmospheric pressure just above water’s thermodynamic triple point, and temperatures occasionally hovering around the freezing point, it is likely that local niches are seeing above-zero temperatures, and Vasavada acknowledges, “liquid water could exist here over a tiny range of conditions.” But don’t expect a Culligan water plant in Gale Crater any time soon. “We wouldn’t expect for Curiosity to see liquid water, because it would evaporate or re-freeze too quickly,” explains Vasavada. “With so little water vapor in the atmosphere, any liquid water molecules on the surface would quickly turn to gas.”

So when on Mars, drink your coffee quickly. (And pack a blanket.)

“Gale Crater may look like the dusty, basaltic basins of the American southwest, but one look at the thermometer will send you running for the winter coat.”

– Jeffrey Marlow, Martian Diaries

Read Marlow’s full article here.

Image: Sunset on Mars seen by the MER Spirit from Gusev Crater in 2005 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Desertification

Desertification Image Credit: Ewan Robinson

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The Sahelian-drought, that began in 1968 and took place in sub-Saharan Africa, was responsible for the deaths of between 100,000 to 250,000 people, the displacement of millions more and the collapse of the agricultural base for several African nations. In North America during the 1930’s, parts of the Canadian Prairies and the “Great Planes” in the US turned to dust as a result of drought and poor farming practices. This “Dust Bowl” forced countless farmers to abandon their farms and way of life and made a fragile economic situation even worse. In both cases, a combination of factors led to the process known as Desertification. This is defined as the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems due to natural and man-made factors, and it is a complex process.

Desertification can be caused by climactic variances, but the chief cause is human activity. It is principally caused by overgrazing, overdrafting of groundwater and diversion of water from rivers for human consumption and industrial use. Add to that overcultivation of land which exhausts the soil and deforestation which removes trees that anchor the soil to the land, and you have a very serious problem! Today, desertification is devouring more than 20,000 square miles of land worldwide every year. In North America, 74% of the land in North America is affected by desertification while in the Mediterranean, water shortages and poor harvests during the droughts of the early 1990s exposed the acute vulnerability of the Mediterranean region to climatic extremes.

In Africa, this presents a serious problem where more than 2.4 million acres of land, which constitutes 73% of its drylands, are affected by desertification. Increased population and livestock pressure on marginal lands have accelerated this problem. In some areas, where nomads still roam, forced migration causes these people to move to new areas and place stress on new lands which are less arid and hence more vulnerable to overgrazing and drought. Given the existing problems of overpopulation, starvation, and the fact that imports are not a readily available option, this phenomenon is likely to lead to greater waves of starvation and displacement in the near future.

Against this backdrop, the prospect of a major climate change brought about by human activities is a source of growing concern. Increased global mean temperatures will mean more droughts, higher rates of erosion, and a diminished supply land water; which will seriously undermine efforts to combat drought and keep the world’s deserts from spreading further. The effects will be felt all over the world but will hit the equatorial regions of the world especially hard, regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, the Mediterranean, Central and South America, where food shortages are already a problem and are having serious social, economic and political consequences.

We have written many articles about desertification for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the largest desert on Earth, and here’s an article about the Atacama Desert.

If you’d like more info on desertification, check out Visible Earth Homepage. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desertification
http://www.greenfacts.org/en/desertification/index.htm
http://archive.greenpeace.org/climate/science/reports/desertification.html
http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/deserts/desertification/
http://didyouknow.org/deserts/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overdrafting