Last Updated on April 25, 2022
Deserts can be hot or cold. We are accustomed to think of the word “desert” to indicate the main arid areas of the planet, those located at low latitudes (near the Equator) where temperatures reach very high peaks, filled with sand dunes and camels. Truth is, scientifically the term desert includes all those dry places where the annual rainfall almost never exceeds values between 200 and 250 mm, regardless of temperature. But what does it change between a hot desert and a cold one? And where in the world can you find cold deserts?
Temperate or cold deserts are found in temperate regions at higher latitudes — and thus colder temperatures — compared to those found in hot deserts. Remoteness from the coast, which results in low air humidity due to a lack of onshore winds, or the existence of high mountains separating the desert from the coast, generate these dry habitats. Central Asia has the greatest temperate desert area, followed by western North America, southeastern South America, and southern Australia. Temperate deserts are similar in aridity and thus environmental features such as landforms and soils to more typical hot deserts, despite having lower temperatures.
Differences between hot and cold deserts
As the name suggests, the main difference between hot and cold deserts lie is the annual temperature range they can reach. The majority of cold deserts are found in the middle and high latitudes where, in the coldest seasons, temperatures plummet far below freezing. Cold deserts can be covered by ice or perennial snows and often undergo more significant seasonal climatic variations than those affecting hot deserts, which by contrast have very hot days and colder nights, all year round. In the map below, hot deserts are highlighted in red and cold deserts in blue.
Polar deserts are the two largest cold deserts found in the polar regions, the Arctics and Antarctica. They are characterized by intense cold and huge expanses of perennial ice for this reason they are also called white deserts. Most polar deserts are covered in ice sheets, ice fields, or ice caps, and precipitation usually occurs in the form of snow rather than rain.
Antarctica is also known as the “continent of records”. Not only this is the largest cold desert in the world, but also the largest desert on Earth, and by far! Located on the southern borders of the world, Antarctica covers more than 14 million square kilometers (more or less as large as Europe and the United States put together!) and is covered by ice for about 98% of its area. Antarctica has the coldest temperatures on the planet with annual averages ranging from -10°C to -60°C. Unfortunately, again due to climate change, a record value of 18.3 °C was recorded and validated in Antarctica in February 2020. The Antarctic ice cap contains about 65% of the fresh water present on the planet: if all the ice melted, the average sea level would rise by about 60 meters.
The Arctic desert is a large ice region in the northern hemisphere, surrounding the north pole, comprising parts of different states and continents, such as Greenland. The maximum summer temperatures reach an average of 10 °C (due to climate change the worrying value of 38 °C was reached in June 2020) while in winter they drop to -60 °C in some remote areas of Siberia.
The Gobi Desert is a vast area of eastern Asia covering about 1.3 million square kilometers straddling northern China and southern Mongolia. The annual temperature range in this area is very important and the average temperature range goes from 45 °C summer maximum to reach minimums of – 40 °C in winter. The Gobi is a desert mainly formed by Mesozoic and Cenozoic (the later era, not yet finished) sedimentary rocks that hold perfectly preserved dinosaur and mammal fossils and are a real treasure for paleontologists all over the planet. If we don’t take polar deserts into consideration, then the Gobi Desert is the largest cold desert in the world.
The Karakum desert covers more than 70% of the national territory of Turkmenistan and hosts the Darvaza gas crater also known as “Gates to Hell”, an artificial crater where flames have been burning for more than 50 years. The Karakum covers more than 350 thousand square kilometers and, although in summer temperatures reach high values ranging from 30 to 35 ° C, in winter there are up to -30 ° C and the desert is affected by strong and characteristic frosts.
The Kizilkum Desert is also located in Central Asia, between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. This cold desert spans an area of about 300 thousand square kilometers characterized by rocks and red sand and, even if during the hottest seasons temperatures reach high values (up to 50 °C), winters are very harsh and it is not uncommon that the dunes are covered with frost. The cretaceous rocks of the Kizilkum Desert, eroded by strong winds over time, have revealed numerous fossil evidence of dinosaurs and early mammals.
The Namib desert is considered the oldest desert in the world and its dunes are among the world’s most famous. Characterized by reddish colors due to the oxidation of iron contained in the sand, they often contrast with dry swamps of white clay that once housed the bed of rivers and streams. The Namib coastal desert is located in Africa, with most of its surface is located in Namibia and touches a small northern region of South Africa and part of southern Angola for a total of 81 thousand square kilometers. In some areas of the desert the minimum annual temperatures reach up to 7°C and because of the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and to the Benguela ocean current, which cools the air and brings humidity, the Namib dunes closer to the coast are often wrapped in a thick and fascinating veil of fog.
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