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The World's Largest Deserts

A map showing the generalized location of Earth's ten largest deserts and a table of over 20 major deserts.

world desert map

World desert map: This map shows the generalized location of Earth's ten largest deserts on the basis of surface area. The table at the bottom of this page provides the names, generalized locations, and surface areas of over twenty major deserts. Base map by NOAA.

sand dunes in the Sahara Desert of Libya

Sand dunes in the Sahara Desert of Libya: Most people think of deserts as "sandy" landscapes. That is true part of the time. This is a view of sand dunes in the Sahara Desert of Libya - an area known as the Ubari (or Awbari) Sand Sea. Photo © iStockphoto / PatrickPoendl.

What is a Desert?

A desert is a landscape or region that receives very little precipitation - less than 250 mm per year (about ten inches). Approximately 1/3 of Earth's land surface is a desert. There are four different types of deserts based upon their geographic situation: 1) polar deserts, 2) subtropical deserts, 3) cold winter deserts, and 4) cool coastal deserts. As shown on the map above, deserts occur on all of Earth's continents.

The Largest Desert

The two largest deserts on Earth are in the polar areas. The Antarctic Polar Desert covers the continent of Antarctica and has a size of about 5.5 million square miles. The second-largest desert is the Arctic Polar Desert. It extends over parts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. It has a surface area of about 5.4 million square miles.

McMurdo Dry Valleys

McMurdo Dry Valleys: The largest deserts on Earth are in the polar regions. This is one of the McMurdo "dry valleys" near Lake Hoare, Antarctica. The Canada Glacier is in the background. Photograph by Peter West, National Science Foundation.

Non-Polar Deserts

The rest of Earth's deserts are outside of the polar areas. The largest is the Sahara Desert, a subtropical desert in northern Africa. It covers a surface area of about 3.5 million square miles. A list of more than twenty of the largest non-polar deserts can be found below.

vegetation of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona

Vegetation of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona: Cacti and grasses in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. Photo © iStockphoto / vlynder.

The Desert Environment

When most people think of a desert, they imagine a landscape covered with sand and sand dunes. Although many deserts are sand-covered, most are not. Many desert landscapes are rocky surfaces. They are rocky because any sand-size or smaller particles on the surface are quickly blown away. Rocky deserts are barren wind-swept landscapes.

Most deserts receive so little precipitation that surface streams usually only flow immediately after rainfall - unless the stream has a source of water outside of the desert. Streams that enter a desert usually suffer major water losses before they exit. Some of the water is lost to evaporation. Some is lost to transpiration (taken up by plants and then released to the atmosphere from the plants). And, some is lost to infiltration (water soaking into the ground through the bottom of the stream channel).

Desert Fauna and Flora

The plants and animals that live in a desert must be adapted to the environment. Plants must be very tolerant to intense sun, prolonged periods without precipitation, and have an ability to prevent moisture loss to conditions of severe temperature ranges, dry winds, and low humidity.

Animals must be able to tolerate temperature extremes, temperature ranges, and have an ability to survive with very little water. Many animals adapt to desert conditions by living underground and being active at night.

Major Deserts of the World

NameType of DesertSurface AreaLocation
AntarcticPolar5.5 million mi²Antarctica
ArcticPolar5.4 million mi²Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia
SaharaSubtropical3.5 million mi²Northern Africa
ArabianSubtropical1 million mi²Arabian Peninsula
GobiCold Winter500,000 mi²China and Mongolia
PatagonianCold Winter260,000 mi²Argentina
Great VictoriaSubtropical250,000 mi²Australia
KalahariSubtropical220,000 mi²South Africa, Botswana, Namibia
Great BasinCold Winter190,000 mi²United States
SyrianSubtropical190,000 mi²Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia
ChihuahuanSubtropical175,000 mi²Mexico
Great SandySubtropical150,000 mi²Australia
Kara-KumCold Winter135,000 mi²Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan
Colorado PlateauCold Winter130,000 mi²United States
GibsonSubtropical120,000 mi²Australia
SonoranSubtropical120,000 mi²United States, Mexico
Kyzyl-KumCold Winter115,000 mi²Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan
TaklamakanCold Winter105,000 mi²China
IranianCold Winter100,000 mi²Iran
TharSubtropical75,000 mi²India, Pakistan
SimpsonSubtropical56,000 mi²Australia
MojaveSubtropical54,000 mi²United States
AtacamaCool Coastal54,000 mi²Chile
NamibCool Coastal13,000 mi²Angola, Namibia, South Africa

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