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The 14 Largest Deserts in the World

The largest deserts in the world are usually thought of as hot, arid places with sandy, dry earth stretching as far as the eye can see. 

While that’s true for some deserts, a region doesn’t have to be sandy and hot to count as a desert. That’s because precipitation levels, not heat or sand, determine what qualifies as a desert.

The world’s largest deserts are spread all over the globe, but their size, appearance, and ecosystems all vary widely. The largest deserts of the world also tend to have difficult living conditions, so they’re sparsely populated in terms of wildlife. 

In this post, we’ll give an overview of the largest deserts on earth to expand your understanding of what a desert can be.

Kalahari Desert

What Is a Desert?

Approximately one-third of the Earth’s land surface is desert, which is a waterless, desolate area of land with little or no vegetation, typically one covered with sand.

It can be any arid land with long dry seasons to support vegetation and usually has a limited population of people and wildlife.

Deserts can be hot, but unlike popular belief, they can also be icy. In fact, the largest desert on Earth is covered in ice.

The world’s deserts can be divided into five types according to the causes of their dryness—subtropical, rain shadow, interior, polar, and coastal desert.

Desert Wildlife

While deserts are some of the most challenging habitats to live in in the world, a vast number of animals live in these arid areas.

That’s only possible because these animals have adapted to the extreme temperatures and arid environments in desert regions. Animals that adapt to heat are called xerocoles, while those adapted to cold are called chionophiles.

Xerocoles, which can include birds, insects, mammals, and reptiles, usually avoid the sun by resting in the scarce shade or being nocturnal.

Beyond that, many xerocoles’ bodies have adapted in a way to retain water, like the fennec fox whose kidneys retain moisture from the food, and to release heat, like the jackrabbit’s long ears filled with blood vessels that dilate to allow that.

Likewise, some chipnophiles evolved to retain heat, like the sea lion that stores fat or the musk oxen that grows long, shaggy fur to help insulate heat.

The 14 Largest Deserts in the World

Here are the largest deserts in the world, ordered by size.

14. Colorado Plateau

Colorado Plateau
Colorado Plateau
  • Surface Area: 130,116 square miles
  • Desert Type: Cold winter desert

The Colorado Plateau spans several U.S. states, including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. 

Its terrain is varied, including dry grasslands and shrubs with some mountain woodlands and forests. 

This desert is home to wildlife like the pronghorn antelope, blacktail jackrabbit, Colorado chipmunk, rock squirrel, wood rat, cliff chipmunk, white-footed mouse, porcupine, and more small mammals.

13. Great Sandy Desert

Great Sandy Desert
Great Sandy Desert
  • Surface Area: 150,000 square miles
  • Desert Type: Subtropical

Located in Australia, the Great Sandy Desert is a unique bioregion that scientists have closely studied. 

Its terrain is predominantly desert grasslands, low woodlands, and shrubs. Notable local flora includes the paperbark tree – which, true to its name, peels off its bark in layers that look like paper – and soft spinifex, a sharp-pointed grass that thrives in the desert’s sandy dunes and rocky outcrops.

The Great Sandy Desert is also home to dwarf bearded dragons, the scarlet-chested parrot, flying foxes, dingos, and red kangaroos.

12. Karakum Desert

Karakum Desert
Karakum Desert
  • Surface Area: 135,000 square miles
  • Desert Type: Cold winter desert

The Karakum Desert, situated in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, experiences long, hot, dry summers and short, unpredictable, relatively warm winters. 

Average rainfall varies from 2.75 inches to 6 inches, mainly depending on the specific region of the desert. Temperatures fluctuate widely and may swing up to 55 degrees Fahrenheit in a single day.

Animals are few but varied in the Karakum. Wildlife includes insects like ants, termites, dung beetles, spiders, reptiles like lizards, snakes, and other animals like skylarks, hares, hedgehogs, foxes, and gazelles.

11. Chihuahuan Desert

Chihuahuan Desert
Chihuahuan Desert
  • Surface Area: 175,000 square miles
  • Desert Type: Subtropical

The Chihuahuan Desert runs from New Mexico (in the United States) to Mexico City. One of the Chihuahuan’s notable traits is that it receives more summer rain thanks to monsoon thunderstorms and experiences cool, dry winters. 

Annual precipitation ranges from 6 to 20 inches, most of that occurring during the wet summer months. The eastern border of this desert is one of the oldest, richest centers of plant evolution in North America. It’s home to a wide variety of agave and yucca plants.

It’s also home to a wide range of wildlife, mainly amphibians and reptiles. A surprisingly large number of fish live in isolated springs. The mule deer, pronghorn, jaguar, javelina, and grey fox also call this desert their home.

10. Syrian Desert

Syrian Desert
Syrian Desert
  • Surface Area: 190,000 square miles
  • Desert Type: Subtropical

The Syrian Desert (also known as the Jordanian Steppe) spans multiple Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. 

Its terrain consists of mostly rock and gravel, and most of its wildlife is currently under threat from drought, over-grazing, and hunting. 

Some of these animals include storks, herons, raptors, small rodents, camel spiders, and scorpions. This desert is the origin of the golden hamster.

9. Great Basin Desert

Great Basin Desert
Great Basin Desert
  • Surface Area: 190,000 square miles
  • Desert Type: Cold winter

The Great Basin is one of the “big four” deserts in the US, covering most of Nevada and Utah. It’s positioned directly north of the Mojave Desert. 

The terrain is mostly clay, silt, and sand, but this semiarid desert receives a fair amount of snow during the winter. 

A Bristlecold Pine in the region is thought to be the world’s oldest living thing – it’s estimated at 4,950 years old!

Notable animal species include the water shrew, yellow-bellied marmot, beaver, sagebrush vole, bighorn sheep, and porcupine.

8. Kalahari Desert

Kalahari Desert
Kalahari Desert
  • Surface Area: 220,000 square miles
  • Desert Type: Subtropical

The Kalahari is located in southern Africa, running through Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. 

It’s actually considered a semi-desert because it usually receives 4-8 inches of rainfall per year but can receive up to 20 inches (10 more than the threshold of what’s acceptable for a region to be considered a desert) during special wet years.

Meerkats, hyenas, kudu, and wildebeests make this desert their home.

7. Great Victoria Desert

Great Victoria Desert
Great Victoria Desert
  • Surface Area: 250,000 square miles
  • Desert Type: Subtropical

The Great Victoria is a harsh environment for life, consisting mainly of sand, rocks, hard-packed earth, and grassland. 

During the summertime, temperatures in this Australian desert can rise up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The wintertime sees cooler temperatures, but the desert stays fairly hot all year. Interestingly, it receives 8-10 inches of rainfall in most years, even though Oceania is the driest continent on Earth.

This harsh environment provides a problematic habitat for most species to thrive in. However, lizards, small marsupials, moles, burrowing frogs, birds, dingos, and monitor lizards have managed to adapt to the conditions.

6. Patagonian Desert

Patagonian Desert
Patagonian Desert
  • Surface Area: 260,000 square miles
  • Desert Type: Cold winter

The Patagonian Desert, also known as the Patagonian Steppe, is mainly located in Argentina, with a small overlap with Chile, and is the largest desert in South America

To the west of the Patagonian lie the Andes, the world’s largest mountain range. To the east, the Patagonian is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean.

This semiarid desert is similar to the Gobi Desert in terms of climate and terrain. It’s often covered in a layer of frost during the winter but is generally too dry for snow.

The armadillo, Patagonian skunk, guanaco, Geoffroy’s cat, puma, Patagonian Mara, and a handful of birds of prey make the Patagonian Desert their home.

5. Gobi Desert

Gobi Desert
Gobi Desert
  • Surface Area: 500,000 square miles
  • Desert Type: Cold winter

The Gobi Desert sees high temperatures in the summer and extremely cold temperatures in the winter. 

It’s considered a rain shadow desert thanks to the Himalayas, which block out rainy weather before making it to the Gobi. The terrain mainly consists of rocks and hard-packed earth. 

This, in combination with its advantageous location in inland China and Mongolia, has made it a valuable trade route throughout history.

The animals that live in the Gobi Desert are well-equipped to handle the seasonal extremes. It’s home to many iconic animals, including the snow leopard, Gobi viper, jerboa, wild Bactrian camel, Gobi ibex, and more.

4. Arabian Desert

The Arabian desert is one of the largest deserts in the world
Arabian Desert
  • Surface Area: 1 million square miles
  • Desert Type: Subtropical

The Arabian Desert covers most of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia, including Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. 

This makes it the second-largest subtropical desert in the world. In the hot summertime, temperatures can climb as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit, then drop drastically at night.

The barren landscape is surprisingly rich in natural resources like sulfur and oil. Wildlife is few and generally small, including locusts and dung beetles.

3. Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert
Sahara Desert
  • Surface Area: 3.5 million square miles
  • Desert Type: Subtropical

The Sahara Desert in North Africa is the third-largest desert in the world but is perhaps the most well-known. 

The Sahara is undeniably huge, running across 11 countries (including Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and more) and covering almost the entire northern third of Africa.

While not the largest desert in the world, it is the largest subtropical desert in the world, meaning it’s the world’s largest hot desert. 

Temperatures can reach up to 122 Fahrenheit during the day. It’s known for its hot climate and expansive dunes that can be as tall as 600 feet. Surprisingly, it’s also home to 2 rivers and 20 seasonal lakes.

The Sahara Desert is also home to various iconic wildlife, including camels, lizards, cheetahs, and scorpions.

2. Arctic Desert

Arctic Desert
Arctic Desert
  • Surface Area: 5.4 million square miles, second-largest desert in the world
  • Desert type: Polar

The Arctic and Antarctic are the only two polar deserts in the world, which is why they’re often forgotten in the public mind. The air in either polar region is too cold to hold moisture. 

As a cold desert, the Arctic only receives about 6-10 inches of rainfall a year and has an average temperature of -4 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.

The Arctic Desert spans several northern countries, including Canada, Greenland, Russia, and northern portions of Asia. 

It’s also home to a long list of unusual and iconic wildlife, including Beluga whales, arctic hares, arctic foxes, snowy owls, Arctic wooly bear moths, narwhals, orca whales, bald eagles, caribou, moose, seals, wolverines, and polar bears.

1. Antarctic Desert

Antarctica is the largest desert in the world
Antarctica is the largest desert in the world
  • Surface Area: 5.5 million square miles
  • Desert Type: Polar

The Antarctic Desert is unusual for several reasons. Most importantly, it’s the largest desert in the world. It’s also unusual in that the desert covers the entire continent of Antarctica. 

About 98% of the desert is permanently covered by ice, receiving less than an inch of rain per year. Some experts think certain inland portions of the Antarctic Desert haven’t seen rain in the past 14 million years.

Beyond that, the coldest temperature (-148 degrees Fahrenheit) ever recorded was taken at the Soviet Vostok Station on the Antarctic Plateau.

Much like the Arctic Desert, the Antarctic Desert boasts a long list of well-known and vital wildlife, including emperor penguins, several species of whale, krill, seals, leopard seals, and birds.

Map of the Largest Deserts on Earth

Here’s an interactive map so you can see exactly where all of the largest deserts in the world are located!

Map of the largest deserts in the world

FAQs with Desert Facts

How Many Deserts Are There in the World?

There are 33 significant deserts in the world, ranging from cold winter deserts to subtropical.

Which Country Has the Most Deserts?

Counting 13 arid areas, China has the highest number of deserts, followed by Pakistan (11) and Kazakhstan (10).

What Is the World’s Biggest Desert?

Hands-down, the world’s largest desert is the Antarctic sprawling 5.5 million square miles, which is 98% covered in ice.

What Is the Largest Subtropical Desert in the World?

The Sahara Desert is by far the largest desert in the world at more than 3.5 million square miles.

What Is the Largest Hot Desert in the World?

The Sahara Desert is the largest hot (subtropical) desert in the world.

What Is the Hottest Desert?

Although it varies every year, it is usually the Gobi, Dasht-e Lut, Sahara, or Sonoran desert.

What Is the Largest Cold Desert in the World?

Antarctica is the largest cold desert in the world at more than 5.5 million square miles. It also happens to be the coldest.

Final Thoughts on the Largest Deserts in the World

In this article, we talked about how the largest desert in the world isn’t the Sahara Desert but the Antarctic Desert.

Also, we discussed the types of deserts, which don’t necessarily need to be hot, many times they are also freezing!

In short, the world’s largest deserts are spread all over the globe, but their size, appearance, and ecosystems all vary widely. The largest deserts of the world also tend to have difficult living conditions, so they’re sparsely populated in terms of wildlife. 

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