Last Updated on April 21, 2024

Coastal deserts are deserts located in coastal areas, generally at the western edges of continents near the tropics.

Coastal deserts are characterized by low levels of precipitation, high evaporation rates, and sparse vegetation.

Winds off the coast blows in an easterly pattern and prevents the moisture from moving onto the land, thus causing a desert climate.

To classify as a desert, the area needs to receive little to no precipitation – in some cases it may rain only once every couple of years.

But because they are close to a sea or ocean, these deserts experience relative humidity, creating a unique ecosystem.

Coastal Deserts in Chile and Peru
Location of South American coastal deserts, crossing Peru and Chile


Coastal deserts are located on the western coast of the South American and African continents at 20° to 30° latitude.

The Atacama Desert, the Namib desert and the Western Sahara desert are examples of coastal deserts. There are no coastal deserts in North America.


Coastal deserts have unique climates because despite being located near bodies of water, they receive virtually no rain throughout the year.

They often have a unique microclimate that is influenced by the presence of cold currents, which can create fog and mist that contribute to the desert’s low levels of moisture.

This phenomenon is due to wind currents which prevent rain from reaching land, when cold winds from Antarctica and hot winds from the South Equator meet, they tend to make water evaporate causing precipitation to occur in the ocean, rarely reaching land.

Despite the harsh conditions, coastal deserts are an important habitat for many species of plants and animals, and are also home to a number of indigenous communities that have lived in the region for generations.

In the Atacama desert, a natural phenomenon known as El Niño causes rain to occur in cycle of once every 3-7 years.

The Chilean desert is thus known for being the most arid place on Earth, although the two polar deserts (Antarctica and the Arctics) receive even less precipitation.


Coastal deserts are especially known for a phenomenon called “desert blooming”, which occurs whenever the desert receives significant amounts of rain. Desert flowers that have adapted to lay dormant under the sand for years bloom all at the same time, creating a spectacular scenery filled with color in an otherwise arid land.

Other desert plants have also adapted to survive with very sporadic rain. Some of the species that can be identified in a coastal desert include wild tobacco, wild tomatoes, salt grass, rice grass, black sage, salt bush, ferns and watercress.


Coastal deserts are home to a surprising variety of animal life, each species uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions of this environment.

The types of animals that can be found in coastal deserts vary depending on the location, but all share the ability to survive in an environment that is both hot and dry.

African coastal deserts are particularly rich in wildlife, with species such as elephants, fennec foxes, gerbils, hares, desert hedgehogs, some species of sheep and zebras, ostriches, raptors, secretary birds, fowls, and owls.

These animals have developed a range of adaptations to cope with the extreme heat and lack of water. For example, the fennec fox has large ears that help to dissipate heat and also enable them to hear prey moving underground. The ostrich has long legs that enable it to run at high speeds and escape predators.

In South American coastal deserts, the animal life is just as varied, with species such as vicuñas (animals similar to llamas), gray foxes, flamingos, seals, pelicans, and several species of insects and reptiles such as lizards and geckos.

These animals have adapted to the unique conditions of the desert by developing specialized features. For example, the vicuña has thick, woolly fur that helps to insulate it from the cold desert nights, while the flamingo has a specialized beak that enables it to filter tiny shrimp and other invertebrates out of the water it feeds on.

Despite the challenges of living in a coastal desert, these animals have thrived by developing a range of adaptations that enable them to survive in the extreme conditions.

Whether it’s through physical adaptations like long legs or large ears, or behavioral adaptations like hunting at night to avoid the heat of the day, these animals have found ways to cope and even thrive in their unique environment.

Atacama Coastal Desert Blooming
The Atacama desert before and after a rare desert bloom.

Coastal Deserts FAQs

Why are coastal deserts so dry?

Coastal deserts are some of the driest regions on Earth, despite being located near the sea. This is because they are located near cold bodies of water, with cold wind carrying very little moisture.

When these cold winds move towards land, they encounter the dry and hot desert winds which make water evaporate. This causes rain to occur quite often on the sea but almost never on land.

Is California a coastal desert?

California is not a coastal desert. The state is partly crossed by the Mojave desert, but the area that stretches along the coast does not constitute a desert because of too high levels of precipitation.

As a matter of fact, there are no coastal deserts in the US or North America.

What are coastal deserts in South America?

The Atacama desert in Chile and the Sechura desert in Peru are the two coastal deserts located in the western South American continent. They are connected by the larger Peruvian coastal desert.

What are coastal deserts in Africa?

The Atlantic coastal desert in western Northern Africa covers much of Western Sahara and Mauritania. The Namib desert in western Southern Africa stretches along the coast of Namibia and partly Angola and South Africa.

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