The Sahara (الصحراء الكبرى, aṣ-ṣaḥrā´ al-kubra, "The Great Desert") is the world's largest hot desert and the world's second largest desert after Antarctica. At over 9,000,000 square kilometers (3,500,000 sq mi), it covers most parts of Northern Africa; an area stretching from the Red Sea, including parts of the Mediterranean coasts, to the outskirts of the Atlantic Ocean. To the south, it is delimited by the Sahel, a belt of semi-arid tropical savanna separating the Sahara from Sub-Saharan Africa. The Sahara is almost as large as the continental United States, and is larger than Australia. The Sahara has an intermittent history that may go back as much as 3 million years. Some of the sand dunes can reach 180 meters (600 ft) in height.
The Sahara's boundaries are the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea on the north, the Red Sea and Egypt on the east, and the Sudan and the valley of the Niger River on the south. The Sahara is divided into western Sahara, the central Ahaggar Mountains, the Tibesti Mountains, the Aïr Mountains (a region of desert mountains and high plateaus), Tenere desert and the Libyan desert (the most arid region). The highest peak in the Sahara is Emi Koussi in the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad.
The Sahara divides the continent of Africa into North and Sub-Saharan Africa. The southern border of the Sahara is marked by a band of semiarid savanna called the Sahel; south of the Sahel lies the lusher Sudan and the Congo River Basin. Most of the Sahara consists of rocky hamada; ergs (large sand dunes) form only a minor part.
People lived on the edge of the desert thousands of years ago since, immediately after the last ice age, the Sahara was a much wetter place than it is today. Over 30,000 petroglyphs of river animals such as crocodiles (which still exist in parts of the desert) survive, with half found in the Tassili n'Ajjer in southeast Algeria. Fossils of dinosaurs, including Afrovenator, Jobaria and Ouranosaurus, have also been found here. The modern Sahara, though, is not as lush in vegetation, except in the Nile Valley, at a few oases, and in the northern highlands, where Mediterranean plants such as the olive tree are found to grow. The region has been this way since about 3000 BC. Some 2.5 million people live in the Sahara, most of these in Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Algeria. Dominant ethnicities in the Sahara are various Berber groups including Tuareg tribes, various Arabised Berber groups such as the Hassaniya-speaking Maure (Moors, also known as Sahrawis), and various "black African" ethnicities including Tubu, Nubians, Zaghawa, Kanuri, Peul (Fulani), Hausa and Songhai. Important cities located in the Sahara include Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania; Tamanrasset, Ouargla, Bechar, Hassi Messaoud, Ghardaia, El Oued, Algeria; Timbuktu, Mali; Agadez, Niger; Ghat, Libya; and Faya-Largeau, Chad.
It has been reported that the Sahara is expanding south by as much as per year, overwhelming degraded grasslands, taking over the Sahel, the dry tropical savanna that has defined the Sahara's southern limit. Global warming and poor farming methods have been given as possible causes. The spreading of deserts is known as "desertification," and the phenomenon is occurring in other desert areas worldwide.
The Sahara covers huge parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia. It is one of three distinct physiographic provinces of the African massive physiographic division.
The desert landforms of the Sahara are shaped by wind (eolian) or by occasional rains, and include sand dunes and dune fields or sand seas (erg), stone plateaus (hamada), gravel plains (reg), dry valleys (wadi), and salt flats (shatt or chott). Unusual landforms include the Richat Structure in Mauritania.
Several deeply dissected mountains and mountain ranges, many volcanic, rise from the desert, including the Aïr Mountains, Ahaggar Mountains, Saharan Atlas, Tibesti Mountains, Adrar des Iforas, and Red Sea Hills. The highest peak in the Sahara is Emi Koussi, a shield volcano in the Tibesti range of northern Chad.
Most of the rivers and streams in the Sahara are seasonal or intermittent, the chief exception being the Nile River, which crosses the desert from its origins in central Africa to empty into the Mediterranean. Underground aquifers sometimes reach the surface, forming oases, including the Bahariya, Ghardaïa, Timimoun, Kufrah, and Siwah.
The center of the Sahara is hyper-arid, with little vegetation. The northern and southern reaches of the desert, along with the highlands, have areas of sparse grassland and desert shrub, with trees and taller shrubs in wadis where moisture collects.
To the north, the Sahara reaches to the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt and portions of Libya, but in Cyrenaica and the Magreb, the Sahara borders Mediterranean forest, woodland, and shrub ecoregions of northern Africa, which have a Mediterranean climate characterized by a winter rainy season. According to the botanical criteria of Frank White and geographer Robert Capot-Rey, the northern limit of the Sahara corresponds to the northern limit of Date Palm cultivation (Phoenix dactylifera), and the southern limit of Esparto (Stipa tenacissima), a grass typical of the Mediterranean climate portion of the Maghreb and Iberia. The northern limit also corresponds to the isohyet of annual precipitation.
To the south, the Sahara is bounded by the Sahel, a belt of dry tropical savanna with a summer rainy season that extends across Africa from east to west. The southern limit of the Sahara is indicated botanically by the southern limit of Cornulaca monacantha (a Chenopodiaceae), or northern limit of the Cenchrus biflorus, a grass typical of the Sahel. According to climatic criteria, the southern limit of the Sahara corresponds to the isohyet of annual precipitation (keeping in mind that precipitation varies strongly from one year to another).
The climate of the Sahara has undergone enormous variation between wet and dry over the last few hundred thousand years. During the last ice age, the Sahara was bigger than it is today, extending south beyond its current boundaries. The end of the ice age brought better times to the Sahara, from about 8000 BC to 6000 BC, perhaps due to low pressure areas over the collapsing ice sheets to the north. Once the ice sheets were gone, the northern part of the Sahara dried out. However, not long after the end of the ice sheets, the monsoon, which currently brings rain only as far as the Sahel, came further north and counteracted the drying trend in the southern Sahara. The monsoon in Africa (and elsewhere) is due to heating during the summer. Air over land becomes warmer and rises, pulling in cool wet air from the ocean, which causes rain. Paradoxically, the Sahara was wetter when it received more solar insolation in the summer. Changes in solar insolation are caused by changes in the Earth's orbital parameters (9,000 years ago the Earth's axis had a stronger tilt than it does presently, and perihelion occurred at the end of July).
By around 3400 BC, the monsoon retreated south to approximately where it is today, leading to the gradual rather than abrupt desertification of the Sahara. The Sahara is currently as dry as it was about 13,000 years ago. These conditions are responsible for what has been called the Sahara Pump Theory.
The Sahara has one of the harshest climates in the world. The prevailing north-easterly wind often causes the sand to form sand storms and dust devils. Precipitation, while rare, is not unknown. Half of the Sahara receives less than of rain a year, with the rest receiving up to a year. The rainfall happens very rarely, but when it does it is usually torrential when it occurs after long dry periods, which can last for years.
The southern boundary of the Sahara, as measured by rainfall, was observed to both advance and retreat between 1980 and 1990. As a result of drought in the Sahel, the southern boundary showed an overall southward movement of during that period. . Deforestation has also caused the Sahara to advance southward in recent years, as trees and bushes continue to be used a fuel source.
The Sahara comprises several distinct ecoregions, whose variations in temperature, rainfall, elevation, and soils harbor distinct communities of plants and animals. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the ecoregions of the Sahara include:
The peoples of Phoenicia, who flourished between 1200-800 BC, created a confederation of kingdoms across the entire Sahara to Egypt. They generally settled along the Mediterranean coast, as well as the Sahara, among the peoples of Ancient Libya, who were the ancestors of peoples who speak Berber languages in North Africa and the Sahara today, including the Tuareg of the central Sahara.
The Phoenician alphabet seems to have been adopted by the ancient Libyans of north Africa, and Tifinagh is still used today by Berber-speaking Tuareg camel herders of the central Sahara.
Sometime between 633 BC and 530 BC, Hanno the Navigator either established or reinforced Phoenician colonies in Western Sahara, but all ancient remains have vanished with virtually no trace. (See History of Western Sahara.)
Following the Islamic conquest of North Africa in the seventh century CE, trade across the desert intensified. The kingdoms of the Sahel, especially the Ghana Empire and the later Mali Empire, grew rich and powerful exporting gold and salt to North Africa. The emirates along the Mediterranean Sea sent south manufactured goods and horses. From the Sahara itself, salt was exported. This process turned the scattered oasis communities into trading centres, and brought them under the control of the empires on the edge of the desert. A significant slave trade crossed the desert (See Arab slave trade).
This trade persisted for several centuries until the development in Europe of the caravel allowed ships, first from Portugal but soon from all Western Europe, to sail around the desert and gather the resources from the source in Guinea. The Sahara was rapidly remarginalized.
European colonialism in the Sahara began in the 19th century. France conquered Algeria from the Ottomans in 1830, and French rule spread south from Algeria and eastwards from Senegal into the upper Niger to include present-day Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco (1912), Niger, and Tunisia (1881).
Egypt, under Muhammad Ali and his successors, conquered Nubia (1820-22), founded Khartoum (1823), and conquered Darfur (1874). Egypt, including the Sudan, became a British protectorate in 1882. Egypt and Britain lost control of the Sudan from 1882 to 1898 as a result of the Mahdist War. After its capture by British troops in 1898, the Sudan became a Anglo-Egyptian condominium.
Most of the Saharan states achieved independence after World War II: Libya in 1951, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia in 1956, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger in 1960, and Algeria in 1962. Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975, and it was partitioned between Mauritania and Morocco. Mauritania withdrew in 1979, and Morocco continues to hold the territory.
The modern era has seen a number of mines and communities develop to exploit the desert's natural resources. These include large deposits of oil and natural gas in Algeria and Libya and large deposits of phosphates in Morocco and Western Sahara.
A number of Trans-African highways have been proposed across the Sahara, including the Cairo-Dakar Highway along the Atlantic coast, the Trans-Sahara Highway from Algiers on the Mediterranean to Kano in Nigeria, the Tripoli-Cape Town Highway from Tripoli in Libya to Ndjamena in Chad, and the Cairo-Cape Town Highway which follows the Nile. Each of these highways is partially complete, with significant gaps and unpaved sections.
Speakers of the Nilo-Saharan language family also inhabit the Sahara, including the Fur of Darfur in western Sudan and the Saharan languages of Niger, Chad and western Sudan, which includes the Kanuri, Tedaga, and Dazaga.
The following countries are either fully or partially covered by the Sahara.