The Great Victoria Desert, Australia
In 1875, British explorer Ernest Giles was the first European to cross the vast Great Victoria Desert in southwestern Australia, and it was he that named it after Queen Victoria. Europeans didn’t stick around in this challenging environment, however, and the 348,750 square kilometres (134,650 square miles) desert is now mostly inhabited by Indigenous Australians.
Dasht e-Kavir, Iran
This hot desert, where temperatures can fluctuate as much as 70°C (158°F) between day and night, is covered in a thick salty crust, formed due to the arid, virtually rain-free climate and intense evaporation of water on the ground. No one lives on the salty terrain itself, and the desert has barely been explored.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The world’s largest salt flat, at 10,582 square km (4,086 sq mi), sits in southwest Bolivia at a lofty 3656m (11,885ft) above sea level. Salar de Uyuni formed when a giant prehistoric salt lake dried up, leaving behind a salty crust, in parts is up to ten metres (32ft) thick – an incredibly striking, indelible sight.
The Namib, Namibia
At 55-million-years old, the Namib, or “vast place” as it means in the language of the Khoikhoi people of southwestern Africa, is the world’s most ancient desert. Its sand dunes are exceptionally high, several exceeding over 300m (980ft), and barely any rain falls here. There are few human settlements in this almost totally barren region.
The Atacama Desert, Peru, Chile, Bolivia & Argentina
The driest desert in the world, the Atacama, contains Chile’s largest salt flat. This desert sees just 15mm (0.59 inches) of rain a year, though some parts receive as little as 1mm (0.04 inches), and some have never seen rain. It’s 50 times drier than Death Valley, California, and the lack of moisture caused the accidental mummification of bodies buried thousands of years ago.
Thar desert, India & Pakistan
The Thar Desert forms the natural boundary between India and Pakistan. In Indian mythology, the great epic Ramayana refers to the Thar Desert region as the Salt-ocean, or “Lavanasagara”, due its rich salt deposits and salt-water lakes. The origin of this desert is one of controversy, and scientists dispute the dates and method of its formation.
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Taklamakan desert, China
The world’s second-largest shifting-sand desert is made up of about 85 per cent sand dunes, which are expanding (due to desertification caused by drought, inappropriate agriculture or deforestation) to envelop farms and villages in northwest China. Taklamakan is on the Silk Road trade route, and merchants used to stop in little oasis towns, where water is supplied by mountain rainfall, for much needed respite from the arid environment.
Karakum desert, Turkmenistan
Karakum Desert, meaning “Black Sand” in Turkic languages, takes up seventy per cent of Turkmenistan’s land surface. In 1971, a 70-metre-deep (230ft) cavern full of natural gas was discovered by geologists who tried to burn off the gas by setting it alight. However, it has burned ever since, and “The Door to Hell” is now a popular tourist attraction.
© Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock
Chihuahuan desert, USA & Mexico
Straddling the US-Mexico border, the Chihuahuan Desert is the second-largest desert in North America, after the Great Basin. With warm summers and cool winters, it’s one of the most biologically diverse deserts in the world and contains several large mountain ranges, including the Sierra Madre and the Sacramento Mountains.
Patagonian desert, Chile & Argentina
Bound by the Andes to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Patagonian Desert sits in the southern tip of Argentina and Chile, made up of vast frosty tablelands and massifs, split by canyons and valleys. Temperatures here average just 3°C (37°F), and despite the harsh environment, local wildlife includes owls, pygmy armadillos weasels and pumas.
Kalahari, southern Africa
The Kalahari occupies most of Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa. Though its name means “the great thirst” or “a waterless place”, it has grazing areas that can support wildlife. The San hunter-gatherer people have lived in the Kalahari for 20,000 years, and they share it with hyenas, lions, meerkats, giraffes, warthogs, jackals, baboons and antelope.
Gobi, China & Mongolia
The largest arid region in Asia, the Gobi is a cold desert, mostly made up of huge expanses of bare rock. The Gobi covers parts of the south of Mongolia and the northwest of China, and rapid desertification means the Gobi is expanding at an incredible rate (3600 square kilometres a year) into the grasslands of southern China, and is damaging the region’s agriculture.
Arabian, western Asia
In the Arabian Desert, which encompasses most of the Arabian Peninsular, the interior is dry and hot, but the coastal regions and highlands can get very humid, with a more tropical climate. Extremes of temperature are common – summer temperatures can reach 54°C (129°F), while the coldest recorded temperature was –12°C (10°F), when it snowed.
The Sahara, northern Africa
Almost as large as the USA, the Sahara (“The Great Desert” in Arabic) is one of the world’s hottest deserts. Though it contains shifting sand dunes that can reach up to 180m (590ft), most of this huge expanse that stretches over the north of the African continent is characterised by hard, rocky plateaus. Berber and Beja peoples have lived in the Sahara for centuries.
McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica
The Antarctic continent is all desert, and it’s the largest on earth. The Dry Valleys region is one of its driest areas – virtually no snow falls here, and it is not covered in thick ice, unlike the rest of the continent. Freezing cold, dry winds that can reach 320km per hour sweep down from mountain-tops through the valleys and evaporate all moisture.