You Gotta Know These Deserts
- Antarctica (5.4 million mi2) Because it is covered with (solid) water, it is somewhat surprising that Antarctica is considered a desert, but it is classified as such due to its lack of precipitation. Players should be familiar with its tallest mountain, Vinson Massif in the Ellsworth Mountains; its active volcano Mount Erebus; the surrounding Ross and Weddell Seas; and the Ross Ice Shelf. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole (1911), while the Englishman Robert Scott died trying to reach it. Ernest Shackleton had to abandon his ship, the Endurance, during an attempt to cross Antarctica on foot.
- Sahara Desert (Northern Africa; 3.5 million mi2) The Sahara is the world’s second largest desert, but its largest hot desert. The Atlas Mountains bound the western Sahara on the north, and the Sahel — a savannah-like strip — bounds it on the south. It is dominated by rocky regions (hamada), sand seas (ergs), and salt flats (shatt) and dry river valleys (wadi) that are subject to flash floods. The Berber and Tuareg peoples are native to the Sahara.
- Atacama Desert (Chile; 70,000 mi2) The Atacama’s chief claim to fame is the rain shadow of the Andes, which makes it the driest hot desert in the world. The desert was the primary bone of contention in the War of the Pacific (1879 1883; Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia) that sought to control its nitrate resources, which were necessary for the production of explosives.
- Kalahari Desert (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa; 360,000 mi2) The Kalahari is a large region, not all of which is arid enough to qualify as a desert. It is known for its red sand, large game reserves (meerkats, gemsbok, springbok, steenbok), and mineral deposits (notably uranium). Its San Bushmen speak a click language.
- Mojave moh-HAH-vay Desert (mostly California, and some of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada; 25,000 mi2) The Mojave is bounded by the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges along the San Andreas and Garlock Faults. It is between the Great Basin and the Sonoran Desert, and it contains the lowest and driest point of North America, Death Valley. It is most strongly associated with the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia).
- Gobi Desert (China and Mongolia; 500,000 mi2) The Gobi, Asia’s second largest desert (after the Arabian Desert), is bounded on the north by the Altai Mountains. It is known for its role in the Silk Road trading route and the Nemegt Basin, where fossilized dinosaur eggs and human artifacts have been found.
- Rub’ al-Khali (Arabian Peninsula; 250,000 mi2) Its name means “Empty Quarter” in English, is sometimes considered the most inhospitable place on earth. It is known for the world’s largest oil field, the Ghawar, and for once being part of the frankincense trade.
- Namib Desert (Namibia and Angola; 30,000 mi2) The Namib, a coastal desert, is known for its bizarre Welwitschia and medicinal Hoodia plants. It is thought to be the oldest desert in the world.
- Painted Desert (Northern Arizona) The Painted Desert, which is shared by Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest National Parks, is known for its colorful, banded rock formations.
- Negev Desert (Israel; 4,700 mi2) The triangular Negev covers the southern half of Israel.
- Taklamakan Desert (China; 105,000 mi2) The Taklamakan is an extremely cold, sandy desert known for splitting the Silk Road into branches running north and south of it. It is bounded by the Kunlun, Pamir, and Tian Shan mountain ranges.
- Great Sandy Desert (Western Australia; 140,000 mi2) Part of the Western Desert, and the ninth largest in the world.
The above list is based on the frequency with which deserts have appeared in NAQT’s packet sets, but half of the world’s ten largest deserts don’t make that list: the Arabian Desert (#3, which includes the Rub’ al-Khali), the Patagonian Desert (#5), the Great Victoria Desert (#6), the Great Basin (#7), and the Chihuahuan (#8).