The Atacama desert in Chile is one of the driest places on Earth—some parts haven’t seen rainfall for more than 400 years. Few species can survive in such a desolate place, but the miracle of life has found a way: a rare rain shower earlier this year led to expansive fields of flowers blooming in the Atacama’s Huasco region.
Kalahari is derived from a word meaning ‘great thirst’. That’s certainly one way to sum up the vast expanses of dry red sand found in this African wilderness. Despite its aridity, lots of animals live here including lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, antelopes, porcupines and meerkats.
Great Salt Lake Desert
On a list of useful things to find in the thirsty desert, salt is right at the bottom. Yet the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah provides the stuff in abundance. When this dried out lake receives its meagre eight inches of rainfall each year, the water evaporates to reveal a new salt crust.
The big one that everyone’s heard of. The Sahara is the largest hot desert on the planet (but not the largest desert overall—that’s coming up). It’s an enormous expanse of dryness that spans approximately 9,400,000 square kilometres, making it larger than the total land area of the United States.
Deserts don’t have to be hot, as Antarctica proves. The entire continent is a vast and unforgiving desert—the largest on the planet—and 98% of it is covered in ice. It’s the coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth, which also explains why it’s the only one without any permanent human residents.
Covering most of the Arabian peninsula and stretching from Yemen to Iraq, this desert’s deadly trials include quicksand and temperatures that turn from scorching to freezing overnight. Only specially adapted species survive here, including oryx, spiny-tailed lizards and sand cats.
This African desert might be the oldest in the world—conditions here have been arid or semi-arid for at least 55 million years. Most of the animals living in the Namib are well-adapted arthropods like the Tenebrionid beetle, which survives by rolling single droplets of fog down its back and into its mouth.
The Mojave is the driest North American desert, and also the one where you’ll find the notorious Death Valley. The highest ambient air temperature on the surface of the Earth was recorded here in 1913: a blistering 56.7°C. It’s home to some impressive desert creatures including cougars, rattlesnakes, Gila monsters and burrowing owls.
A natural gas crater in the Derweze region of the Karakum Desert has been burning fiercely for more than 40 years. It was set on fire in 1971 by geologists who were worried that the collapsed underground cave would spread deadly methane gas into the surrounding areas. Locals now call it the Door to Hell.
Nicknames such as Sea of Death and Place of Ruins should give you an idea of the sort of place Taklamakan in China is. An desperately dry place that experiences an average annual rainfall of 1cm, it also gets dangerously cold at night. The lowest temperature recorded here was -32 °C.
With winter’s arrival, thoughts of never-ending sunshine and warm sand beneath your feet probably sound idyllic. In reality, many of the places on Earth that fit this description are far from the tropical paradises you’re imagining.
Deserts are some of the most dangerous terrains on the planet; seemingly endless landscapes with extreme weather conditions and no water to be found for hundreds of miles. So grab an ice cold drink and slurp away happily in the knowledge that you’re not being subjected to the punishment of these deadly lands.