An area having an annual rainfall of 10 in. (25 cm) or less is considered to be a desert. Some deserts have no rain for intervals of several years. Deserts and semideserts exist in some regions having up to about 20 in. (50 cm) of rainfall where evaporation is very high and loss by runoff is great. The largest desert regions of the world lie between 20° and 30° north and south of the equator, either where mountains intercept the paths of the trade winds or where atmospheric high-pressure areas cause descending air currents and a lack of precipitation. Other factors contributing to the formation of deserts include the amount of sunshine, rate of evaporation of water, and range of temperature. Temperature ranges in deserts are often extreme.
Plants of the desert have leaves and stems adapted to lessen their loss of water, and individual plants are more widely spaced than those in more humid regions; their roots form a spreading network sometimes penetrating to 50 ft (15 m) underground. Among the animals living in deserts of North America are species of squirrels, mice, bats, foxes, rabbits, and deer; reptiles, e.g., the Arizona coral snake, species of rattlesnakes, the desert tortoise, and the horned toad, gila monster, and many other lizards; a number of birds, e.g., the cactus wren, the road runner, species of owls, sparrows, and hawks; and spiders, scorpions, termites, and beetles. See dune; oasis.
Europe is the only continent without deserts; there are, however, semiarid portions around the Black and Caspian seas, in parts of Ukraine and the N Caucasus. In Asia a great desert, the Gobi, exists in the middle latitudes chiefly because of its remoteness from water. Also in central Asia are the Kara Kum and Kyzyl Kum deserts. Farther south there are desert areas in NW India and through S Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Arabia; these are largely the result of their situation in a subtropical high-pressure belt and of the distribution of pressure areas that produce cold, dry winds in winter and hot, dry winds in summer.
The Sahara, the largest desert in the world, is in Africa. Second only to the Sahara in area is the desert region of central and W Australia, lying in a high-pressure belt and in the path of the trade winds (which lose much of their moisture on the windward slopes of the east-coast mountains). South America has deserts on the coast and interior of Chile and E of the Andes in Argentina and Patagonia. In North America, deserts are found from N Mexico northward through parts of the SW and W United States. Extreme desert conditions exist in the Mojave Desert, the Imperial Valley, and Death Valley. The northern plateau region of Mexico and the adjacent portions of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico have less extreme desert conditions with a quite abundant growth of mesquite, greasewood, creosote bush, yucca, and various species of cactus. Middle-latitude deserts are found in parts of the Great Basin.
See J. W. Krutch, The Voice of the Desert (1955); D. F. Costello, The Desert World (1972); G. L. Bender, ed., Reference Handbook on the Deserts of North America (1982); G. N. Louw, Ecology of Desert Organisms (1982); B. Spooner and H. S. Mann, Desertification and Development (1983); A. Grainger, Desertification (1986); L. Berkofsky and M. G. Wurtele, ed., Progress in Desert Research (1987); studies by E. C. Jaeger on desert flora and fauna (1957, 1961, 1965).
A desert is a landscape or region that receives very little precipitation. Deserts can be defined as areas that receive an average annual precipitation of less than 250 mm (10 in), or as areas in which more water is lost than falls as precipitation. In the Köppen climate classification system, deserts are classed as BWh (hot desert) or BWk (temperate desert). In the Thornthwaite climate classification system, deserts would be classified as arid megathermal climates.
Deserts take up about one third of the Earth's land surface. They usually have a large diurnal and seasonal temperature range, with high daytime temperatures, and low nighttime temperatures (due to extremely low humidity). The temperature in the daytime can reach 45 °C/113 °F or higher in the summer, and dip to 0 °C/32°F or lower in the winter. Water acts to trap infrared radiation from both the sun and the ground, and dry desert air is incapable of blocking sunlight during the day or trapping heat during the night. Thus, during daylight most of the sun's heat reaches the ground, and as soon as the sun sets the desert cools quickly by radiating its heat into space. Urban areas in deserts lack large (more than 14 °C/25 °F) daily temperature variations, partially due to the urban heat island effect. Many deserts are formed by rain shadows; mountains blocking the path of precipitation to the desert. Deserts are often composed of sand and rocky surfaces. Sand dunes called ergs and stony surfaces called hamada surfaces compose a minority of desert surfaces. Exposures of rocky terrain are typical, and reflect minimal soil development and sparseness of vegetation.
Bottomlands may be salt-covered flats. Eolian processes are major factors in shaping desert landscapes. Cold deserts (also known as polar deserts) have similar features, except the main form of precipitation is snow rather than rain. Antarctica is the world's largest cold desert (composed of about 98 percent thick continental ice sheet and 2 percent barren rock). Some of the barren rock is to be found in the so-called Dry Valleys of Antarctica that almost never get snow, which can have ice-encrusted saline lakes that suggest evaporation far greater than the rare snowfall due to the strong katabatic winds that evaporate even ice.
The largest hot desert is the Sahara.
Deserts sometimes contain valuable mineral deposits that were formed in the arid environment or that were exposed by erosion. Due to extreme and consistent dryness, some deserts are ideal places for natural preservation of artifacts and fossils.
|Gobi desert (Asia)|
|Empty Quarter (Middle East)|
|Kalahari desert (Africa)|
|Great Sandy Desert (Australia)|
|Taklamakan desert (Asia)|
|Namib desert (Africa)|
English desert and its Romance cognates (including Italian deserto, French désert and Spanish desierto) all come from the ecclesiastical Latin dēsertum (originally "an abandoned place"), a participle of dēserere, "to abandon." The correlation between aridity and sparse population is complex and dynamic, varying by culture, era, and technologies; thus the use of the word desert can cause confusion. In English prior to the 20th century, desert was often used in the sense of "unpopulated area", without specific reference to aridity; but today the word is most often used in its climate-science sense (an area of low precipitation)—and a desert may be quite heavily populated, with millions of inhabitants. Phrases such as "desert island" and "Great American Desert" in previous centuries did not necessarily imply sand or aridity; their focus was the sparse population. However, the connotation of a hot, parched, and sandy place often influences today's popular interpretation of those phrases.
In 1953, Peveril Meigs divided desert regions on Earth into three categories according to the amount of precipitation they received. In this now widely accepted system, extremely arid lands have at least 12 consecutive months without rainfall, arid lands have less than 250 millimeters (10 in) of annual rainfall, and semiarid lands have a mean annual precipitation of between 250 and 500 millimeters (10-20 in). Arid and extremely arid lands are deserts, and semiarid grasslands are generally referred to as steppes.
Measurement of rainfall alone cannot provide an accurate definition of what a desert is because being arid also depends on evaporation, which depends in part on temperature. For example, Phoenix, Arizona receives less than 250 millimeters (10 in) of precipitation per year, and is immediately recognized as being located in a desert due to its arid adapted plants. However, the North Slope of Alaska's Brooks Range also receives less than 250 millimeters (10 in) of precipitation per year, and is not generally recognized as a desert region.
Potential evapotranspiration supplements the measurement of rainfall in providing a scientific measurement-based definition of a desert. The water budget of an area can be calculated using the formula P-PE±S, wherein P is precipitation, PE is potential evapotranspiration rates and S is amount of surface storage of water. Evapotranspiration is the combination of water loss through atmospheric evaporation and through the life processes of plants. Potential evapotranspiration, then, is the amount of water that could evaporate in any given region. As an example, Tucson, Arizona receives about 300 millimeters, (12 in), of rain per year, however about 2500 millimeters, (100 in), of water could evaporate over the course of a year. In other words, about 8 times more water could evaporate from the region than actually falls. Rates of evapotranspiration in cold regions such as Alaska are much lower because of the lack of heat to aid in the evaporation process.
There are different forms of deserts. Cold deserts can be covered in snow or ice; frozen water unavailable to plant life. These are more commonly referred to as tundra if a short season of above-freezing temperatures is experienced, or as an ice cap if the temperature remains below freezing year-round, rendering the land almost completely lifeless.
Most non-polar deserts are hot in the day and chilly at night (for the latitude) because of the lack of the moderating effect of water. In some parts of the world, deserts are created by a rain shadow effect in which air masses lose much of their moisture as they move over a mountain range; other areas are arid by virtue of being very far from the nearest available sources of moisture.
Deserts are also classified by their geographical location and dominant weather pattern as trade wind, mid-latitude, rain shadow, coastal, monsoon, or polar deserts. Former desert areas presently in non-arid environments are paleodeserts.
Montane deserts are arid places with a very high altitude; the most prominent example is found north of the Himalaya especially in Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, in parts of the Kunlun Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. Many locations within this category have elevations exceeding 3,000 meters (10,000 ft) and the thermal regime can be hemiboreal. These places owe their profound aridity (the average annual precipitation is often less than 40 mm/1.5in) to being very far from the nearest available sources of moisture. Montane deserts are normally cold.
Rain shadow deserts form when tall mountain ranges block clouds from reaching areas in the direction the wind is going. As the air moves over the mountains, it cools and moisture condenses, causing precipitation on the windward side. When that air reaches the leeward side, it is dry because it has lost the majority of its moisture, resulting in a desert. The air then warms, expands, and blows across the desert. The warm, desiccated air takes with it any remaining moisture in the desert.
Sand covers only about 20 percent of Earth's deserts. Most of the sand is in sand sheets and sand seas—vast regions of undulating dunes resembling ocean waves "frozen" in an instant of time. In general, there are six forms of deserts:
The remaining surfaces of arid lands are composed of exposed bedrock outcrops, desert soils, and fluvial deposits including alluvial fans, playas, desert lakes, and oases. Bedrock outcrops commonly occur as small mountains surrounded by extensive erosional plains.
Several different types of dunes exist. Barchan dunes are produced by strong winds blowing across a level surface and are crescent-shaped. Longitudinal or seif dunes are dunes that are parallel to a strong wind that blows in one general direction. Transverse dunes run at a right angle to the constant wind direction. Star dunes are star-shaped and have several ridges that spread out around a point.
Deserts have a reputation for supporting very little life, but in reality deserts often have high biodiversity, including animals that remain hidden during daylight hours to control body temperature or to limit moisture needs. Some fauna includes the kangaroo rat, coyote, jack rabbit, and many lizards. These animals adapted to live in deserts are called xerocoles. Some flora includes shrubs, Prickly Pears, Desert Holly, and the Brittle bush.
Most desert plants are drought- or salt-tolerant, such as xerophytes. Some store water in their leaves, roots, and stems. Other desert plants have long taproots that penetrate to the water table if present, or have adapted to the weather by having wide-spreading roots to absorb water from a greater area of the ground. Another adaptation is the development of small, spiny leaves which shed less moisture than deciduous leaves with greater surface areas. The stems and leaves of some plants lower the surface velocity of sand-carrying winds and protect the ground from erosion. Even small fungi and microscopic plant organisms found on the soil surface (so-called cryptobiotic soil) can be a vital link in preventing erosion and providing support for other living organisms.
Deserts typically have a plant cover that is sparse but enormously diverse. The giant saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert provide nests for desert birds and serve as "trees" of the desert. Saguaro grow slowly but may live up to 200 years. When 9 years old, they are about 15 centimeters (6 in) high. After about 75 years, the cacti develop their first branches. When fully grown, saguaro cacti are 15 meters tall and weigh as much as 10 tons. They dot the Sonoran and reinforce the general impression of deserts as cactus-rich land.
Although cacti are often thought of as characteristic desert plants, other types of plants have adapted well to the arid environment. They include the pea and sunflower families. Cold deserts have grasses and shrubs as dominant vegetation.
Rain does fall occasionally in deserts, and desert storms are often violent. A record 44 millimeters (1.7 in) of rain once fell within 3 hours in the Sahara. Large Saharan storms may deliver up to 1 millimeter per minute. Normally dry stream channels, called arroyos or wadis, can quickly fill after heavy rains, and flash floods make these channels dangerous.
Though little rain falls in deserts, deserts receive runoff from ephemeral, or short-lived, streams fed considerable quantities of sediment for a day or two. Although most deserts are in basins with closed or interior drainage, a few deserts are crossed by 'exotic' rivers that derive their water from outside the desert. Such rivers infiltrate soils and evaporate large amounts of water on their journeys through the deserts, but their volumes are such that they maintain their continuity. The Nile River, the Colorado River, and the Yellow River are exotic rivers that flow through deserts to deliver their sediments to the sea. Deserts may also have underground springs, rivers, or reservoirs that lie close to the surface, or deep underground. Plants that have not completely adapted to sporadic rainfalls in a desert environment may tap into underground water sources that do not exceed the reach of their root systems.
Lakes form where rainfall or meltwater in interior drainage basins is sufficient. Desert lakes are generally shallow, temporary, and salty. Because these lakes are shallow and have a low bottom gradient, wind stress may cause the lake waters to move over many square kilometers. When small lakes dry up, they leave a salt crust or hardpan. The flat area of clay, silt, or sand encrusted with salt that forms is known as a playa. There are more than a hundred playas in North American deserts. Most are relics of large lakes that existed during the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. Lake Bonneville was a 52,000 kilometers² (20,000 mi²) lake almost 300 meters (1000 ft) deep in Utah, Nevada, and Idaho during the Ice Age. Today the remnants of Lake Bonneville include Utah's Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, and Sevier Lake. Because playas are arid landforms from a wetter past, they contain useful clues to climatic change.
When the occasional precipitation does occur, it erodes the desert rocks quickly and powerfully.
The flat terrains of hardpans and playas make them excellent racetracks and natural runways for airplanes and spacecraft. Ground-vehicle speed records are commonly established on Bonneville Speedway, a racetrack on the Great Salt Lake hardpan. Space shuttles land on Rogers Lake Playa at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Some mineral deposits are formed, improved, or preserved by geologic processes that occur in arid lands as a consequence of climate. Ground water leaches ore minerals and redeposits them in zones near the water table. This leaching process concentrates these minerals as ore that can be mined.
Evaporation in arid lands enriches mineral accumulation in their lakes. Lake beds known as Playas may be sources of mineral deposits formed by evaporation. Water evaporating in closed basins precipitates minerals such as gypsum, salts (including sodium nitrate and sodium chloride), and borates. The minerals formed in these evaporite deposits depend on the composition and temperature of the saline waters at the time of deposition.
Significant evaporite resources occur in the Great Basin Desert of the United States, mineral deposits made famous by the "20-mule teams" that once hauled borax-laden hi wagons from Death Valley to the railroad. Boron, from borax and borate evaporites, is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of glass, enamel, agricultural chemicals, water softeners, and pharmaceuticals. Borates are mined from evaporite deposits at Searles Lake, California, and other desert locations. The total value of chemicals that have been produced from Searles Lake substantially exceeds US$1 billion.
The Atacama Desert of Chile is unique among the deserts of the world in its great abundance of saline minerals. Sodium nitrate has been mined for explosives and fertilizer in the Atacama since the middle of the 19th century. Nearly 3 million tonnes were mined during World War I.
Valuable minerals located in arid lands include copper in the United States, Chile, Peru, and Iran; iron and lead-zinc ore in Australia; chromite in Turkey; and gold, silver, and uranium deposits in Australia and the United States. Nonmetallic mineral resources and rocks such as beryllium, mica, lithium, clays, pumice, and scoria also occur in arid regions. Sodium carbonate, sulfate, borate, nitrate, lithium, bromine, iodine, calcium, and strontium compounds come from sediments and near-surface brines formed by evaporation of inland bodies of water, often during geologically recent times.
The Green River Formation of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah contains alluvial fan deposits and playa evaporites created in a huge lake whose level fluctuated for millions of years. Economically significant deposits of trona, a major source of sodium compounds, and thick layers of oil shale were created in the arid environment.
Some of the more productive petroleum areas on Earth are found in arid and semiarid regions of Africa and the Mideast, although the oil fields were originally formed in shallow marine environments. Recent climate change has placed these reservoirs in an arid environment. It's noteworthy that Ghawar, the world's largest and most productive oilfield is mostly under the Empty Quarter and Al-Dahna deserts.
Other oil reservoirs, however, are presumed to be eolian in origin and are presently found in humid environments. The Rotliegendes, a hydrocarbon reservoir in the North Sea, is associated with extensive evaporite deposits. Many of the major U.S. hydrocarbon resources may come from eolian sands. Ancient alluvial fan sequences may also be hydrocarbon reservoirs.
A desert is a hostile, potentially deadly environment for unprepared humans. In hot deserts, high temperatures cause rapid loss of water due to sweating, and the absence of water sources with which to replenish it can result in dehydration and death within a few days. In addition, unprotected humans are also at risk from heatstroke.
Humans may also have to adapt to sandstorms in some deserts, not just in their adverse effects on respiratory systems and eyes, but also in their potentially harmful effects on equipment such as filters, vehicles and communication equipment. Sandstorms can last for hours, sometimes even days. This makes surviving in the desert quite difficult for humans.
Despite this, some cultures have made hot deserts their home for thousands of years, including the Bedouin, Tuareg tribe and Pueblo people. Modern technology, including advanced irrigation systems, desalinization and air conditioning have made deserts much more hospitable. In the United States and Israel for example, desert farming has found extensive use.
In cold deserts, hypothermia and frostbite are the chief hazards, as well as dehydration in the absence of a source of heat to melt ice for drinking. Falling through pack-ice or surface ice layers into freezing water is a particular danger requiring emergency action to prevent rapid hypothermia. Starvation is also a hazard; in low temperatures the body requires much more food energy to maintain body heat and to move. As with hot deserts, some people such as the Inuit have adapted to the harsh conditions of cold deserts.
Most traditional human life in deserts is nomadic. It depends in hot deserts on finding water, and on following infrequent rains to obtain grazing for livestock. In cold deserts, it depends on finding good hunting and fishing grounds, on sheltering from blizzards and winter extremes, and on storing enough food for winter. Permanent settlement in both kinds of deserts requires permanent water and food sources and adequate shelter, or the technology and energy sources to provide it.
Many deserts are flat and featureless, lacking landmarks, or composed of repeating landforms such as sand dunes or the jumbled ice-fields of glaciers. Advanced skills or devices are required to navigate through such landscapes and inexperienced travellers may perish when supplies run out after becoming lost. In addition sandstorms or blizzards may cause disorientation in severely-reduced visibility.
The danger represented by wild animals in deserts has been featured in explorers' accounts but does not cause higher rates of death than in other environments such as rain forests or savanna woodland, and generally does not by itself affect human distribution. Defence against polar bears may be advisable in some areas of the Arctic, as may precautions against venomous snakes and scorpions in choosing sites at which to camp in some hot deserts.