Vast, arrid and stretching for miles upon miles, our deserts cover one fifth of the world’s surface and exist on every one of our seven continents. With less than 25 cm of rain a year, these landscapes are often mythologised, and with so few of us venturing into them it’s not difficult to see why.
Stretching across the planet, from Arizona to Western Australia, our deserts might seem devoid of life - but in fact a wealth of plants and animals have adapted over thousands of years to survive in the harshest of environments, learning to thrive in the desert ecosystem. Here, in the scorching deserts that make up so much of our land, we find some of the most surprising creatures that our planet has to offer.
Humans, too, have found ways to live within these tough desert habitats. A billion people, a sixth of the world’s entire population, call the desert home.
In the far north and far south of planet Earth, we find the polar deserts of the Arctic and the Antarctic - an ice-free landscape that at first appears entirely at odds with the sandy deserts of the Middle East or Africa. In polar deserts, gravel plains and bedrock exist for much of the year at temperatures far below zero - a clear example of the contrasts and surprises that we find in this most otherworldly of environments.
- Lack of moisture in the air
- Arid and dry
- Sand dunes
- Lack of cloud cover
- High winds
- Extreme temperatures
- Dry river beds
- Sparse vegetation
- Gravel plains
In certain areas with subtropical deserts, climate change can lead to increased rainfall. This can upset the equilibrium of the desert ecosystem, with vegetation growing at a much faster speed than previously. Increased flooding can cause soil erosion, which can both alter the landscape and increase stress on infrastructures such as transport routes through the desert.
At the other end of the scale, climate change can increase the possibility of drought and the occurrence of wildfires in the desert. Wildfires may kill off certain plants, whilst droughts run the risk of emptying the water holes and oasis that desert animals rely on.
The opportunities for adventure in the desert are numerous, whether you’re looking for adventure sports or cultural excursions, or to catch a glimpse of the elusive Big 5 skulking by an oasis. In Morocco, tours into the desert with local Bedouin people can offer up a slice of a world completely different to what many of us are used to. In Namibia, sandboarding, quad biking, or climbing the 85-metre high Dune 45 to watch the sunset might be on your adventure itinerary.
Other desert activities might involve exploring ancient ruins, camping under the stars, visiting desert towns, hot air ballooning or even skydiving. There is a world of adventure waiting for those who dare, in deserts from California to Australia’s Northern Territories - and numerous places in between.
Desert flowers are some of the most beautiful in the world, and set against a backdrop of shifting sand dunes, empty landscapes and the odd oasis, you might start to feel like you’re on a different planet entirely. When night falls, make sure you look up - wide-open skies, devoid of light pollution, mean seeing the Milky Way is a real possibility.
Some animals have adapted well to living in the desert habitat, despite the extremes of temperature. Coyotes, sidewinder snakes, dung beetles, lizards, iguanas, scorpions and some types of camel have made the desert their home.
Desert plants need to be very hardy, and not require much rain to keep them going. Examples of plants suited to these arid locations include ficus, tumbleweed, and prickly pear and saguaro cacti.
Countries across the Middle East, Africa and South America are known to have large areas of desert, with the Sahara, Arabian and Gobi deserts being amongst the most famous. But these habitats can be found in less expected places too. Parts of the western United States, including large areas in Nevada, California, Arizona, Utah, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming, are home to desert landscapes. Deserts can also be found in parts of China, Russia and Australia (in fact, they make up 18% of Australia’s land.)