Last Updated on August 7, 2022

The word desert is commonly used to define those geographical areas consisting of vast expanses of sand and characterized by very high temperatures and low rainfall. However, there are very different types of deserts, some of which can even be cold.

As a general rule, a natural environment can be classified as a “desert” if it is characterized by the following features:

  • very little precipitation
  • almost total absence of inhabitants
  • almost completely non-existent vegetation.

There is a growing number of deserts in every continent across the globe. Hot deserts may contain sand dunes of different types, resulting from the shifting of sand granules by the constructive force of the wind or sea. Cold-weather deserts are the result of the lack of vegetation due to unsuitable environmental conditions. The Antarctica desert is the largest desert in the world, and also the largest cold desert, whereas the Sahara is the largest hot desert.


Hot and Cold Desert Map
Hot and Cold Deserts of the World (Map)

Types of Desert

There are four main types of desert: hot and dry deserts, semi-arid deserts coastal deserts and cold deserts.

Sahara Desert Tours Morocco, Marrakech, Morocco

Hot desert

Hot deserts are those typical of tropical areas. They are characterized by considerable diurnal thermal excursions (for example the temperature during the day exceeds 122 °F (50 °C) whereas during the night it goes down to few centigrade degrees above zero).

Hot deserts generally have little precitipation and are characterized by a lack of vegetation, but can be prone to flash foods and thunderstorms. Many types of plants and animals have adapted for survival in such conditions.

A hot desert can be characterized by the presence of soft sand or by rocky pavements (i.e. rocky desert or hamada).

Inner Mongolia, China

Semi-arid desert

Semi-arid deserts are found in Europe, North America, Russia and northern Asia. They are similar to arid deserts but have more defined seasons, with long, hot summers and minimal precipitation during the winter.

Summer temperatures are not as intense as arid deserts and nighttime temperatures tend to be cooler. In the United States, semi-arid deserts are found in Utah, Montana, and throughout the Great Basin, which extends from California and Nevada to Mexico.

Simpson Desert, Australia

Coastal desert

Coastal deserts have moderately short winter seasons. Despite being close to water sources, these deserts remain remarkably dry because most of the precipitation occurs in the oceans, leaving negligible amounts of rain to spill onto the land.

An interesting example is the Atacama Desert which is the driest place on Earth, and the only desert to receive less precipitation than polar deserts, despite being located near the coast.

Antarctica

Cold desert

Cold deserts are characterized by significant annual temperature changes (for example, the temperature in summer exceeds 40°C while in winter it drops to -30°C) while the daily temperature changes are much more modest. The Gobi Desert, in Mongolia, is an example of a cold desert.

Polar deserts are found in the polar regions, i.e. 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.


List of Deserts

List of deserts from all continents in the world. Sorted alphabetically or by geographical area, size, and morphology.

All Deserts in the World

NameTypeArea (km²)Area (mi²)Location
AntarcticaPolar Ice and Tundra14,000,0005,405,000Antarctica
Arabian DesertSubtropical2,330,000900,000Western Asia (Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen)
Arctic DesertPolar Ice and Tundra13,900,0005,366,820Eastern Europe
Northern America
Northern Asia
Northern Europe
Atacama DesertMild Coastal140,00054,000South America (Chile and Peru)
Australian DesertSubtropical2,700,0001,000,000Australia
Chihuahuan DesertSubtropical450,000175,000Central America (Mexico)
Northern America (United States)
Colorado PlateauCold Winter337,000130,000United States
Columbia BasinCold Winter83,10032,100United States
Dasht-e KavirSubtropical77,00030,000Iran
Dasht-e LutSubtropical52,00020,100Iran
Dasht-e MargoSubtropical150,00058,000Afghanistan
Gobi DesertCold Winter1,295,000500,000Eastern Asia (China and Mongolia)
Great BasinCold Winter492,000190,000United States
Kalahari DesertSubtropical900,000360,000Southern Africa (Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa)
Karakum DesertCold Winter350,000135,000Turkmenistan
Kyzylkum DesertCold Winter300,000115,000Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan)
Mojave DesertSubtropical124,00048,000United States
Namib DesertCool Coastal81,00031,000Middle Africa (Angola)
Southern Africa (Namibia and South Africa)
Patagonian DesertCold Winter620,000200,000South America (Argentina and Chile)
Registan DesertSubtropical146,00056,400Afghanistan
Sahara DesertSubtropical9,000,000+3,300,000+Eastern Africa (Eritrea)
Middle Africa (Chad)
Northern Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, the Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara)
Western Africa (Mali, Mauritania, and Niger)
Sonoran DesertSubtropical310,000120,000Central America (Mexico)
Northern America (United States)
Syrian DesertSubtropical520,000200,000Western Asia (Iraq, Jordan, and Syria)
Taklamakan DesertCold Winter270,000105,000China
Thar DesertSubtropical200,00077,000Southern Asia (India and Pakistan)

Cold Deserts Only

NameTypeArea (km²)Area (mi²)Location
AntarcticaPolar Ice and Tundra14,000,0005,405,000Antarctica
Arctic DesertPolar Ice and Tundra13,900,0005,366,820Eastern Europe
Northern America
Northern Asia
Northern Europe
Atacama DesertMild Coastal140,00054,000South America (Chile and Peru)
Colorado PlateauCold Winter337,000130,000United States
Columbia BasinCold Winter83,10032,100United States
Gobi DesertCold Winter1,295,000500,000Eastern Asia (China and Mongolia)
Great BasinCold Winter492,000190,000United States
Karakum DesertCold Winter350,000135,000Turkmenistan
Kyzylkum DesertCold Winter300,000115,000Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan)
Namib DesertCool Coastal81,00031,000Middle Africa (Angola)
Southern Africa (Namibia and South Africa)
Patagonian DesertCold Winter620,000200,000South America (Argentina and Chile)
Taklamakan DesertCold Winter270,000105,000China

Pseudo-Deserts

  • Desert of Maine
  • Joaquina Beach
  • Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
  • Accona Desert
  • Tottori Sand Dunes
  • Sleeping Bear Dunes
  • Red Desert (South Africa)
  • Słowiński National Park
  • Carcross Desert
  • Chara Sands
  • Osoyoos Desert
  • Dunas dos Ingleses
World Deserts
Different types of deserts are located on every continent.

Interesting Facts about the Desert

How many deserts are there in the world?

There are 25 deserts in the world, 13 hot deserts and 12 cold deserts. If we add the 12 pseudo-desert to the list, than we can say that there are a total of 37 deserts and pseudo-deserts on Earth. Deserts are present in every continent, although Europe and Antarctica do not have any true hot deserts, they both have examples of cold deserts.

Meaning of desert

The word desert means “abandoned” and comes from the Latin desertus, which translates to “abandoned, lying in waste”. Today the word desert refers to dry locations where vegetation does not grow and that are generally not inhabited, without people.


The largest desert

The largest desert in the world is the Antarctic desert, which covers the entire continent of Antarctica with an area of 5,405,000 mi² (14,000,000 km²). The largest hot desert in the world is the Sahara desert which comprises much of Northern Africa, with over 3,300,000 mi² (9,000,000 km²) of area and still expanding. It currently spans across eleven countries: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia and Western Sahara.

The smallest desert

The Carcross desert in Yukon, Canada is often considered to be the smallest desert with an area of 2.6 km² (1 mi²). In fact, it is not an actual desert, but rather a series of sand dunes leftover from an ancient glacial lake.

The smallest true hot desert is the Dash-e Lut desert in Iran with an area of 52,000 km² (20,077 mi²). While the Dash-e Lut is also the hottest desert on Earth, the smallest cold desert is the Ladakh desert in the Kashmir region of India (59,146km² / 22,836 mi²).

The oldest desert

The oldest desert in the world is the Namib desert in Africa. It has existed for at least 55 million years. The Namib desert covers about 15 percent of the country of Namibia and in the local language its name translates to “area where there is nothing”. It is also one of the most beautiful deserts to travel to.


The hottest desert

Data for the last 20 years indicate that the hottest desert in the world is the Dasht-e Lut desert in Iran, which is also the smallest true desert. The second hottest place is the Sonora desert in the US. The highest temperature recorded in Dasht-e Lut is 159 °F (71°C).

The coldest desert

Antarctica is the coldest desert in the world, with a recorded temperature of -128.2°F (-89°C). It is therefore both the largest and the coldest desert on Earth. If we don’t take polar deserts into account, the Gobi desert has the coldest winters with recorded temperatures of -53°F (-47°C).

The driest desert

The Atacama desert in Chile is the driest desert in the world, with virtually no annual precipitation except for those years where rain is brought by the environmental phenomenon of El Niño (which may occur every two to seven years).


Are there deserts in Europe?

Europe does not have any true hot deserts, but it has semi-arid deserts as well as Arctic tundra. The Tabernas Desert in Spain is often considered to be Europe’s only desert.

Read also: The Ultimate Desert Travel Guide

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