The World’S Largest Deserts

Not all deserts are hot and sandy.

Most of us picture a vast expanse of hot sand when we hear the word desert. However, because geologists strictly define a desert as an area that receives little precipitation, the two largest deserts in the world are at its poles. Taking into account Antarctica and the Arctic, more than 1/3 of the Earth’s surface is a desert.

Antarctic Desert

Also known as the Maudlandia Desert, this desert covers 5.5 million miles in southeast Antarctica. It receives only 2 inches of precipitation per year, less than the Sahara. The precipitation is always in the form of snow.

Arctic Desert

Only slightly smaller than the southern polar desert at 5.4 million miles, this desert region encompasses portions of Sweden, Alaska, Russia, Canada, Norway, Finland, Greenland and Iceland. It is unlike the popular notion of a desert not only because it is cold rather than hot, but also because it is made up of islands. The islands are surrounded by the Arctic Ocean.

Sahara Desert

The Sahara stretches 3.5 million miles across northern Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. The word Sahara means desert in Arabic. The desert encompasses the Tibesti mountain range, whose highest peak, the Emi Koussi, rises beyond 11,000 feet. Some parts of the Sahara contain pyramidal sand dunes more than 500 feet high. Recorded temperatures have hit 135 degrees Fahrenheit.

Arabian Desert

The 1 million mile span of the Arabian Desert dominates the Arabian peninsula. At the center of the Arabian Desert lies the Rub’al Khali, the largest continuous body of sand in the world. The Arabian Desert crosses the boundaries of several countries. Most of the desert is in Saudi Arabia, but it extends into Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Oman.

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Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert in China and Mongolia has a climate between that of the two polar deserts and the subtropical Sahara and Arabian deserts. It is roughly half the size of the Arabian Desert. Much of the Gobi is rocky rather than sandy. During the years of the Mongol Empire, the Gobi was the site of several cities along the Silk Road trading route.