Last Updated on April 26, 2023

Antarctica is the largest desert in the world. It may sound surprising, for people tend to only consider hot deserts filled with sand dunes and camels, but technically any territory with low precipitation classifies as a desert – including polar and cold deserts.

As a matter of fact, the Antarctic and Arctic deserts are the two largest deserts on the planet.

If we only take hot deserts into consideration, then we can say that the Sahara desert is the world’s largest desert, but if we take the all deserts into consideration, including the two polar deserts, then the Sahara only ranks 3rd by size.

Whether you can consider the Sahara to be the largest desert in the world then depends on your definition of “desert”. Scientifically, Antarctica is a desert and it is larger than the Sahara.

Below, an exhaustive list of the largest deserts on Earth by size:

Largest Cold and Hot Deserts: Antarctica and Sahara desert
Left: Antarctic Polar Desert. Right: Sahara desert.

Largest Deserts by Size

1. Antarctic Polar Desert

The Antarctic Polar Desert is the largest desert in the world, which covers the entire continent of Antarctica with an area of 5,405,000 mi² (14,000,000 km²).

Antarctica is a desert because it receives sparce precipitation, mostly in the form of snow, which does not melt but rather builds up forming thick layers of ice sheets.

Antarctica Desert - World's Largest Desert

2. Arctic Desert

The Arctic polar desert is located toward the earth’s north pole and covers a total area of approximately 13.7 million square km (5.3 million square miles), making it the second largest desert in the world.

The Arctic region consists of a number of islands, many of which are inhabited by people and animals. Because it is not a contiguous landmass and does not have a defined area, it is sometimes overlooked despite its size. It spans different countries and continents, including Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia.

Arctic Polar Desert - World's 2nd Largest Desert

3. Sahara Desert

The largest hot desert on the globe, stretching horizontally across the entire African continent from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, barely interrupted by the narrow strip irrigated by the waters of the Nile, and spanning over eleven countries.

The Sahara is also the largest sand desert on Earth, and one of the hottest.

Sahara Desert - World's 3rd Largest Desert

4. Great Australian Desert

Around 30% of the territory of Australia is covered by deserts, known collectively as the Great Australian desert.

The Great Australian desert covers over 2.700.000 square km (1,042,476 square miles) of territory, making it the 4th largest desert in the world. 

Great Australian Desert - World's 4th Largest Desert

5. Arabian Desert

The Arabian Desert is the largest desert in Asia. It consists of a large sandy desert that covers most of the Arabian Peninsula, with an area of 2,330,000 square kilometers (900,000 sq mi).

It crosses several countries in the Middle East from Yemen to the Persian Gulf and from Oman to Jordan and Iraq, making it the largest continuous sand expanse on Earth.

Arabian Desert - World's 5th Largest Desert

6. Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert is the 6th largest desert in the world and the largest cold desert after the two polar deserts.

Located in eastern Asia, the Gobi desert spans around 1,295,000 square km (500,002 square miles) of territory between Mongolia and China.

Gobi Desert - World's 6th Largest Desert

Read also: The Highest Sand Dunes in the World

Largest Desert F.A.Q.s

Which is the largest desert, Antarctica or the Sahara?

Antarctica is larger than the Sahara, with an area of 5,405,000 mi² (14,000,000 km²) vs 3,300,000 mi² (9,000,000 km²).

Both are considered deserts, but Antarctica is a cold polar desert, whereas the Sahara is a hot sandy desert.

Which is the smallest desert in the world?

The smallest true desert is the Dasht-e Lut in Iran, which also happens to be the hottest desert in the world. It has an area of 52,000 km² (20,077 mi²).

The Carcross desert in Yukon, Canada is known as “the smallest desert in the world” with only 2.6 km² (1 mi²) of area, but it is in fact not a true desert.

Which is the largest hot desert in the world?

The world’s largest hot desert is the Sahara desert. It covers an area of 9,200,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi), and is the 3rd largest the desert in the planet overall, after the two polar deserts.

Which is the largest cold desert in the world?

The world’s largest cold desert is Antarctica. It spans an area of of around 5,500,000 mi² (14,200,000 km²), which is roughly the same territory of the United States and Mexico combined.

The Gobi desert is the largest non-polar cold desert on Earth with an area of 1.295 million km², spanning much of Mongolia and parts of China. logo icon

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