The 10 Largest Deserts in the World

January 12, 2024

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Image of the Antarctic, the largest desert in the world

When we hear the word “desert”, most of us imagine an arid, sandy landscape, broken up only by the odd cactus and maybe a camel or two.

Technically, a desert is defined as a barren area of land that sees very little rainfall and where living conditions for animal and plant life are hostile. This means the above description of a desert is correct — however, it also means that deserts can be cold places too.

This list of the 10 largest deserts in the world features various types of deserts, from subtropical to polar ice and tundra:

1. Antarctic Desert

Colony of penguins in the Antarctic
Penguins in the Antarctic Desert
Area: 5,482,651 square miles
Location: Antarctica
Type of Desert: Polar ice and tundra

Measuring more than 5.5 million square miles, the Antarctic Desert is the world’s largest desert, covering the entire continent of Antarctica, which is the 5th largest continent in the world.

Antarctica is also the world’s windiest continent, and its McMurdo Dry Valleys region is one of the driest places on Earth. A staggering 98 percent of the continent is permanently covered in ice and it receives only about 6.5 inches of rainfall per year. With average temperatures of zero degrees Fahrenheit, dropping as low as 58 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months, the Antarctic Desert is the coldest place on planet Earth. 

Other than moss, lichens and bacteria, not much else can survive in such an inhospitable environment — especially in the Dry Valleys region, where not even microbes have been found. However, the coastal regions are home to marine species like penguins, seals and sea lions.

Did you know?

The lowest-ever temperature on Earth was recorded in Antarctica, with thermometers reading -89 degrees Celcius (-128.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Plus, some experts believe that some parts of the continent haven’t seen rain in 14 million years.

2. Arctic Desert

Side view of a polar bear's head emerging from the water
Polar bear in the water
Area: 5,366,820 square miles
Location: Europe (Finland, Iceland, Jan Mayen, Norway, Russia, Svalbard, Sweden), Northern America (Canada, Greenland, United States)
Type of Desert: Polar ice and tundra

The world’s second-largest desert is another cold desert: The Arctic Desert. At 5.4 million square miles, it is only slightly smaller than its South Pole counterpart, expanding into the countries of Canada, Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Jan Mayen, Norway, Russia, Svalbard, Sweden and the US.

While the Arctic Desert receives more rain than the Antarctic, it still only gets about six to 10 inches per year, and although snow falls, it rarely melts. Again, temperatures are extremely cold and the air is dry, but conditions are less hostile, meaning a variety of species can be found there.

Some of the animals that have adapted to the Arctic’s harsh environment are the polar bear, walrus, Arctic fox and snowy owl. Additionally, some humans live in the Arctic Desert home, for example, the Inuit tribe of North America.

Did you know?

The Arctic has the nickname “The Land of the Midnight Sun” because it is perpetually dark during the winter months but perpetually light in summer.

3. Sahara Desert

Two Moroccan men sitting with camels in the Sahara Desert
The Sahara Desert in Morocco
Area: 3,552,140 square miles
Location: Africa (Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia, Western Sahara)
Type of Desert: Subtropical

The Sahara Desert may only come third in this list, but it takes the number one spot as the largest hot desert in the world. Covering nearly a third of Africa, it measures almost 3.6 million square miles, spanning eleven countries including Egypt, Morocco and Sudan.

Stretching across the African continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and up to the Mediterranean Sea, the desert can receive up to 10 inches of rain per year near the coast, however, inland it is more like a quarter inch. Water sources are rare in the Sahara, but its 20 seasonal lakes and two rivers (the Nile – the longest river in the world – and the Niger) are a lifeline for the many animals and humans who call the desert home. As well as camels, lizards, snakes and scorpions can be found in the Sahara’s iconic dunes, which can reach heights of up to 600 feet.

Did you know?

A study by the National Science Foundation found that the Sahara Desert has gotten 10 percent bigger since 1920, and experts agree that it is continuing to grow.

4. Great Australian Desert

Landscape image of the Australian Desert
Dry Australian landscape
Area: 1,042,476 square miles
Location: Australia
Type of Desert: Subtropical

Made up of ten individual deserts, including the Great Victoria Desert and the Great Sand Desert, the Great Australian Desert covers an area of just over a million square miles, making it the world’s fourth-largest desert.

Located in the least-populous and driest inhabited continent in the world, the desert experiences temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer months and receives only about ten inches of rainfall a year.

It may be a harsh environment, comprising miles upon miles of sand, rocks and flat grasslands, but it is the cultural and spiritual homeland of Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal civilization, who have inhabited the desert for thousands of years.

In terms of wildlife, the Australian Desert is home to a wide variety of animals, from kangaroos, camels and dingoes to bats and reptiles. 

Did you know?

With around 750,000 camels roaming the outback, the wild camel population in Australia is the largest in the world; however, camels aren’t native to the country. They were introduced in the 1800s as a way of crossing the desert safely.

5. Arabian Desert

Sandy desert with rocky mountains in the background
An-Nafud Desert in Saudi Arabia
Area: 899,618 square miles
Location: Asia (Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen)
Type of Desert: Subtropical

The fifth-largest desert in the world is another subtropical one. Measuring nearly 900,000 square miles, the Arabian Desert spans the Asian countries of Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

The Arabian Desert comprises three smaller deserts: An-Nafud in the north, Ar-Rub’al-Khali in the south and Ad-Dhana in between. The desert is famous for its rising sand dunes, with the An-Nafud dunes measuring almost 400 feet high and Ar-Rub’al-Khali hailed as the largest dune desert in the world.

While the landscape of the Arabian Desert is barren and sandy with very little life, it is rich in natural resources, the most valuable of which are oil and sulfur.

In the summer, temperatures in the desert can reach up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, but like all subtropical deserts, they plummet at night.

Dung beetles and locusts are native to the Arabian Desert, with gazelles, oryxes and various types of birds found in the region too.

Did you know?

Nomadic tribes like the Bedouin have been herding animals across the Arabian Desert for centuries, but only five percent live semi-nomadically today, and tourism is one of the main reasons why the culture hasn’t disappeared completely.

6. Gobi Desert

Sand ripples across a desert
Sandy in the Gobi desert
Area: 500,002 square miles
Location: Asia (China, Mongolia)
Type of Desert: Cold winter

The Gobi Desert measures just over 500,000 square miles, putting it sixth in the world’s largest deserts list.

A cold winter desert, the Gobi spans parts of Mongolia and China, where there’s little precipitation aside from snow and ice and Siberian wind chill in the winter can cause temperatures to drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That said, in the summer the desert experiences extremely high temperatures. 

The Gobi Desert’s terrain is rocky and hard with little vegetation, however, this has made it an ideal trade route — so much so that it formed part of the Silk Road. Throughout history, the Gobi has played a crucial role in connecting the civilizations of China, Central Asia and the Mediterranean.

Various types of wildlife can be found in the Gobi Desert, including snow leopards, bears, camels and sheep.

Did you know?

Genghis Khan, one of history’s most brutal leaders, used the Gobi Desert’s nomadic tribes to establish his Mongol Empire.

7. Kalahari Desert

Wildebeest grazing in the Kalahari Desert
Wildebeest in the Kalahari Desert
Area: 347,492 square miles
Location: Africa (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa)
Type of Desert: Subtropical

Covering a surface area of almost 350,000 square miles, the Kalahari is the world’s eighth-largest desert, spanning parts of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

Technically classed as a “semi-desert”, the Kalahari can receive twenty inches of rain in wet years, but only four to eight inches in normal years. 

The desert is rich in coal, copper and nickel, and it boasts one of the world’s biggest diamond mines. 

For thousands of years, the Kalahari Desert has been home to many indigenous tribes who continue to live a traditional life of hunting and gathering in close-knit family units. Many animals including giraffes, lions, cheetahs, hyenas, meerkats and zebras also inhabit this African desert.

Did you know?

The Kalahari Desert’s Khoisan tribe speaks the Taa dialect, which has more consonants and vowels than any other language.

8. Patagonian Desert

Perito Moreno Glacier in the Patagonian Desert
Perito Moreno Glacier in the Patagonian Desert
Area: 259,847 square miles
Location: Argentina
Type of Desert: Cold winter

In eighth place is the Patagonian Desert, which spans more than 250,000 square miles across Argentina. 

Also known as the “Patagonian Steppe”, the desert is located between the world’s longest mountain range, the Andes, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Thanks to the rain shadow created by the Andes, the desert experiences little precipitation, with freezing winds and frost covering the ground in winter — which lasts for seven months — and average temperatures of just 37.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Despite this, the indigenous Tehuelche people have lived in the region for thousands of years, and it is also home to a variety of plant and animal species, such as the Southern Beech Tree, Patagonian fox, puma and burrowing owl. 

Did you know?

The world’s third-largest freshwater reserve, the Perito Moreno Glacier, can be found in the  Patagonian Desert and it is one of the few glaciers that’s growing rather than shrinking.

9. Syrian Desert

Five boys, a goat and a pony in the Syrian Desert
Nomadic boys playing in the Syrian Desert
Area: 193,051 square miles
Location: Asia (Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria)
Type of Desert: Subtropical

Also known as the “Jordanian Steppe” or “Badiyat ash-Sham”, the Syrian measures just over 190,000 square miles, making it the ninth-largest desert in the world. 

Spanning the countries of Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, the landscape of this arid region is characterized by rocky mountains, gravel plains and dry riverbeds.

Like the Arabian Desert, the Bedouin people have inhabited the Syrian Desert for thousands of years, and despite environmental challenges caused by climate change, oil drilling and overgrazing, many tribes are still managing to preserve their culture and traditional way of life.

Some of the wildlife that has adapted to this hostile environment includes wolves, sand foxes, gazelles, chameleons and scorpions.

Did you know?

It may be called the Syrian Desert, but more of this great desert lies in Jordan than in Syria.

10. Great Basin Desert

Bristlecone pine tree growing in the desert
Bristlecone pine tree growing in the Great Basin Desert
Area: 190,000 square miles
Location: United States
Type of Desert: Cold winter

The final desert to make it onto this list is the Great Basin Desert. Covering an area of 190,000 square miles, it is the world’s tenth-largest desert, spanning the states of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon,  Utah and Wyoming.

While the desert does receive a moderate amount of snowfall in winter, it only receives 10 inches of rainfall a year, resulting in a dry and desolate landscape. Much of its rugged terrain consists of sand, silt and clay, however, this is broken up by large patches of sagebrush, as well as dry lake beds and salt flats.

Containing remnants of Native American habitation dating back thousands of years, the Great Basin Desert is an important historical site. Home to a variety of unique animal and plant species, it is also important in terms of environmental science.

Did you know?

It is thought that the Great Basin Desert’s bristlecone pine tree is one of the oldest lifeforms on Earth.

Overview: The world’s largest deserts

RankDesertArea (sq miles)Location
1Antarctic Desert5,482,651Antarctica
2Arctic Desert5,366,820Europe
3Sahara Desert3,552,140Africa
4Great Australian Desert1,042,476Australia
5Arabian Desert899,618Asia
6Gobi Desert500,002Asia
7Kalahari Desert347,492Africa
8Patagonian Desert259,847Argentina
9Syrian Desert193,051Asia
10Great Basin Desert190,000United States

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