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What is the Largest Desert in the World?

The largest desert in the world is the Antarctic Desert, covering a staggering 5.5 million square miles. Surpassing the Sahara, this icy expanse redefines our typical image of a desert, not with sand, but with snow and ice. Intrigued by how a frozen land qualifies as a desert? Discover the fascinating criteria that make this possible as we explore further.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The largest desert in the world is the interior of Antarctica. This has an area of about 14,000,000 km2 (5,400,000 sq mi). Rainfall in the Antarctic interior is extremely low, down to 20 millimeters (0.8 in) per year. This is partially because it is so cold that all liquid water quickly freezes solid and joins the ice pack.

The vast majority of liquid lakes in Antarctica are more than a mile below the surface. Some of these lakes are actually lower than freezing temperature, but remain liquid due to the great pressure above. Antarctica has only two major rivers, the Alph River and Onyx River. The latter is the longest in Antarctica, with a length of just 30 km (18 mi). By comparison, the Nile River is 6,650 km (4,135 mi) in length. Antarctica is not only the largest desert in the world, but also one of the oldest large deserts, forming 23 million years ago.

The Arabian Desert is one of the world's largest.
The Arabian Desert is one of the world's largest.

But when most people think of desert, they think of hot. The next two largest deserts in the world -- the Sahara Desert in Africa and the Arabian Desert in the Middle East -- are both very dry and very hot. The Sahara Desert is the largest hot desert on Earth, and the hottest sustained temperature ever recorded on Earth was in the Sahara Desert, in September 1922 in Libya. The temperature was 58 °C (136 °F). Few large animals, camels and humans being two of them, can survive at such temperatures and dryness.

The Sahara Desert covers ten countries, including Egypt.
The Sahara Desert covers ten countries, including Egypt.

The Sahara Desert and the Arabian Desert have areas of 9,100,000 km2 (3,320,000 sq mi) and 2,330,000 km2 (900,000 sq mi), respectively. The Sahara Desert covers ten countries (Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia), while the Arabian Desert covers another ten (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen). The largest concentration of proven oil reserves in the world is found in the Arabian Desert.

Merchants have used camels to cross the Sahara desert since the dawn of civilization.
Merchants have used camels to cross the Sahara desert since the dawn of civilization.

Although today's deserts seem big, the largest desert of all time on the planet was the interior of Pangaea, a super-continent which existed from about 300 - 150 million years ago. The desert there might have been as much as seven times larger than the Antarctic Desert today. Most of the interior of the continent would have been uninhabitable to many forms of life.

The largest desert in the solar system is probably the surface of Venus. Venus' atmosphere has only .002% water vapor. The Earth's has about 1%. Venus' surface has temperatures exceeding 460 °C (860 °F), hotter than most broilers.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the largest desert in the world?

More than 5 million square miles of Antarctica form the world's largest desert.
More than 5 million square miles of Antarctica form the world's largest desert.

The largest desert in the world is the Antarctic Desert, covering an area of about 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles). Despite being covered in ice, it qualifies as a desert due to its extremely low precipitation levels, which are comparable to those found in more traditional sandy deserts.

How does the size of the Antarctic Desert compare to other large deserts?

The Antarctic Desert is significantly larger than the second-largest desert, the Arctic Desert, which spans about 13.9 million square kilometers. It dwarfs the Sahara Desert, the largest hot desert, which covers approximately 9.2 million square kilometers. The vast size of the Antarctic Desert makes it a unique and extreme environment on Earth.

Why is the Antarctic considered a desert if it's covered in ice?

Deserts are defined not by sand, but by their low precipitation levels. The Antarctic Desert receives only about 50 millimeters (2 inches) of precipitation per year, primarily in the form of snow, which is far below the threshold for desert classification. This lack of moisture, despite the presence of ice, is what categorizes the Antarctic as a desert.

Are there any life forms that can survive in the Antarctic Desert?

Yes, despite its harsh conditions, the Antarctic Desert is home to a variety of life forms. These include microbial organisms, lichens, mosses, and several types of invertebrates. The surrounding Southern Ocean also supports marine life such as penguins, seals, and whales that rely on the Antarctic ecosystem.

What impact does climate change have on the Antarctic Desert?

Climate change is having a profound impact on the Antarctic Desert. Rising global temperatures are leading to increased ice melt and the potential loss of habitat for native species. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Antarctic ice sheet has lost mass, and this trend is projected to continue, contributing to global sea level rise.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime CulturalWorld contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime CulturalWorld contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

GardenTurtle

@anon49092: I am not sure about deserts in other parts of the world, but I have visited desert land in the western United States.

While driving through the desert land, the only thing that we could see was sand as far as the eye could see and cactus that were bigger than I ever imagined them to be. We have pictures where we stood beside the cactus and you could hardly see us because the cactus was so tall!

Also, you can expect to see a few sandstorms and lots of tumbleweed blowing across the road. It's really beautiful.

WaterHopper

@wesley91: The Painted Desert is a really large vast area of land. It consists of over 93,000 acres and carries on for 160 miles. The part that is the biggest tourist attraction is the eastern end which is about 120 miles east of Flagstaff, Arizona. There is a visitor’s center that has a website where you could get some great information.

If you make the trip out west and get the opportunity to visit the Painted Desert, I would also recommend visiting the Petrified Forest. Visiting these places really show nature’s beauty.

wesley91

@calabama71: I know you said that the Painted Desert is in Arizona but what part of Arizona does it start in? We are planning a trip out West and I would love to see it.

calabama71

When I was younger, we did a lot of traveling. I was fortunate to be able to travel to the western part of the United States. One of the most beautiful sights that I have ever seen was the Painted Desert. It is in Arizona near the southeastern rim of the Grand Canyon.

Once I saw it, I knew why they call it the Painted Desert. The colors are absolutely breathtaking. They range from gray, lavender, red, orange and pink. It is almost like a rainbow on land.

anon49092

who does the desert look like? what is the complete description of the desert?

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    • The Arabian Desert is one of the world's largest.
      By: TRITOOTH
      The Arabian Desert is one of the world's largest.
    • The Sahara Desert covers ten countries, including Egypt.
      By: Dudarev Mikhail
      The Sahara Desert covers ten countries, including Egypt.
    • Merchants have used camels to cross the Sahara desert since the dawn of civilization.
      By: seqoya
      Merchants have used camels to cross the Sahara desert since the dawn of civilization.
    • More than 5 million square miles of Antarctica form the world's largest desert.
      By: axily
      More than 5 million square miles of Antarctica form the world's largest desert.