The Top 10 Largest Deserts in the World: A Journey Through Vast, Diverse Landscapes

Planet Earth is home to a vast array of impressive land formations, and its deserts are some of the most interesting. While some people may picture an endless sea of sand dunes or a barren, flat landscape, there is a surprising level of diversity among the world’s deserts.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the ten largest deserts in the world and learn what makes each of them unique. Below is a table that lists each of the largest deserts along with their types and total areas.

DesertDesert TypeArea (million sq miles)Area (million sq km)
Gobicold winter0.501.29
Patagoniancold winter0.260.67
Great Victoriasubtropical0.250.64
Great Basincold winter0.190.49
Source: Statista
Worlds largest deserts like Sahara, Gobi, Kalahari, Arabian, Patagonian and Great Basin Desert. Global map with yellow desert climate.
Some of the worlds largest deserts: Sahara, Gobi, Kalahari, Arabian, Patagonian and Great Basin Desert.

Antarctic Desert

A lone yellow tent stands on a vast expanse of snow with a backdrop of distant mountains under a partly cloudy sky in Antarctica.
Near the South Pole in the Antarctic Desert

Total area: 5,500,000 mi2 (14,240,000 km2)

The largest desert in the world is the Antarctic Desert, though it may not represent what most of us imagine when we picture a desert. Although the continent is covered with snow and ice, extremely low levels of precipitation classify much of it as desert. The temperatures in the Antarctic Desert are so low that the snow that does fall never melts, instead turning into ice sheets and glaciers.

The geographic South Pole is located in the Antarctic Desert, making it one of the world’s two polar deserts. It is on the world’s southernmost landmass and the only continent with no permanent human population.

Although Antarctica is so inhospitable to humans, there are plants and animals that live here. Much of the green plant life consists of small, primitive organisms such as moss and lichen. Penguins, sea birds, and seals are some of the animals that live on the continent, though they mostly stick to the coastlines and the western side of the Transantarctic Mountains.

The humans that do spend time in this massive desert are scientists and explorers who are performing research or leading expeditions.

Arctic Desert

A sweeping view of the snowy Spitsbergen Arctic Desert, with mountains under a semi-cloudy sky.
Svalbard in the Arctic Desert

Total area: 5,400,000 mi2 (14,190,000 km2)
Norway and Russia

The Arctic Desert is an ecoregion located on the Norwegian and Russian island groups of Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, Severny Island and Severnaya Zemlya above 75 degrees north latitude. Glaciers, snow, and bare rock dominate the desert’s landscape, and the climate is cold and harsh, characterized by long winters and short summers.

The inhospitable climate makes for limited plant and wild life. Moss and lichen are common at lower elevations, and some birds and mammals are found in the region. The Atlantic Walrus and the Polar Bear are the largest animals found in the Arctic Desert, and the Svalbard rock ptarmigan is the only land-inhabiting bird to live in the area all year round. Outside of the desert region, there are many more animals that live around the North Pole. More than a third of the region falls under officially protected areas.

Sahara Desert

A line of five camels walks through the dunes during the morning near Merzouga, Morocco in the Sahara Desert.
Merzouga, Morocco in the Sahara Desert

Total area: 3,500,00 mi2 (9,140,000 km2)
Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia

The Sahara is the largest non-polar desert on Earth by a long shot. It is more than three times the size of the next largest desert and covers more countries than any other on the planet. The Sahara extends across North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the Mediterranean. Most of Northern Africa is covered by the Sahara, except for the fertile areas along the Mediterranean Coast, the Atlas Mountains, and the Nile Valley.

So large is the Sahara that it covers approximately 31% of Africa’s total land area. It can be divided into several distinct regions such as the Western Sahara, the Ahaggar Mountains, the Tibesti Mountains, and the Libyan Desert. Most of the desert consists of hamada, which are stone plateaus, and the mountains in the desert are very dry.

Although the aridest regions in the Sahara are sparsely populated, there is a wide variety of animals that live in this African desert. Some animals that call this area home are the Saharan cheetah, several species of fox, and the addax, which can go for a year without drinking water.

The desert gets its name from the Arabic word for “desert,” and it is sometimes referred to as “the greatest desert.”

Arabian Desert

A person riding a camel in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan, with rocky mountains in the background and a vast sandy landscape.
Wadi Rum, Jordan in the Arabian Desert

Total area: 1,000,000 mi2 (2,560,000 km2)
Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen

The fourth-largest desert in the world and the largest in Asia is the Arabian Desert. It’s located on the Arabian Peninsula and covers regions in seven different countries. The southern third of the Arabian Peninsula is mostly covered by the Ar-Rub’ al-Khali, which translates to “The Empty Quarter” in English; it is the center of the Arabian Desert as well as one of the largest contiguous bodies of sand in the world.

There are two main geological regions in the Arabian Desert: the western Arabian platform and the eastern region which is composed of sedimentary rock layers. These sedimentary rock layers contain large amounts of petroleum, making the Arabian Desert one of the most petroleum-rich locations in the world.

The Arabian Desert does not have a high level of biodiversity. There are 102 mammals that are native to the desert and 310 bird species that are native to the ecoregion. Many animals, such as the striped hyena and the jackal, have been driven from the region due to human activity such as hunting, off-road driving, and the destruction of their habitat.

Gobi Desert

The image shows a peaceful scene in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia, with a pink sky over a barren landscape and a rocky horizon.
Bulgan, Mongolia in the Gobi Desert

Total area: 500,000 mi2 (1,290,000 km2)
China and Mongolia

The Gobi Desert is number five on this list of the largest deserts in the world. It is located in Asia and covers parts of China and Mongolia. The desert gets its name from the Mongolian word Gobi, which translates to “waterless place” in English. The desert is located on a peninsula and consists mostly of exposed bare rock. This makes it possible to drive over most of the desert easily with a vehicle.

Many deserts are quite windy, and the Gobi Desert certainly falls into this category. In the winter, winds bring in snow from Siberia and temperatures can drop to −40 °C (−40 °F). During the summer, winds can bring temperatures of up to 45 °C (113 °F). Generally, the Gobi Desert is quite cold due to its location at a northern latitude and its relatively high elevation of 910 – 1,520 m (2,990 – 4,990 ft).

Most of the plant life in the Gobi Desert consists of small shrubs that have been adapted to droughts and low grasses. A variety of animals live in the desert, such as gazelles, polecats, camels, and at least thirty different species of lizards.

Climate conditions are causing the northern and eastern boundaries of the Gobi Desert to change constantly, and the desert is expanding to the south through desertification.

Patagonian Desert

A landscape of the Patagonian Desert in Argentina, featuring arid terrain with sparse vegetation and distant hills under a hazy sky.
The Patagonian Desert in Argentina

Total area: 260,000 mi2 (670,000 km2)
Chile, Argentina, and the Faulkland Islands

The sixth-largest desert in the world and the largest in Argentina is the Patagonian Desert, also referred to as the Patagonian Steppe. This desert occupies most of Argentina’s southern third and is bordered by the Andes to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The desert is now used by Argentina mostly for raising livestock, though it was previously inhabited by indigenous hunter-gatherer people.

The reason the Patagonian Desert is so dry is that the Andes to the west of the desert block moisture from flowing from the southern Pacific Ocean into the area, creating a rain shadow. The desert is fairly cold, with temperatures averaging 3 °C (37.4 °F) and rarely exceeding 12 °C (53.6 °F). Snow doesn’t often fall in the desert, though frost is fairly common. There are seven months of winter and five months of summer here.

Desert shrubs and tuft grasses are the most common plants found throughout the Patagonian Desert, and a number of animals also live in the region. Eagles, hawks, the burrowing owl, the lesser rhea, the pygmy armadillo, and the Patagonian weasel are among the animals found in the desert.

Great Victoria Desert

The Serpentine Lakes in the Great Victoria Desert are depicted with sparse vegetation and a vast, arid landscape under a clear sky.
Serpentine Lakes, photo by Marian Deschain

Total area: 250,000 mi2 (640,000 km2)

The Great Victoria Desert is the largest desert in Australia and was named after Queen Victoria by British Australian explorer Ernest Giles in 1875. Giles was the first European to traverse the desert.

Some lists of the largest deserts in the world group all of Australia’s deserts together as the Great Australian Desert, of which the Great Victoria is the largest. The deserts in Australia receive relatively high levels of rainfall for deserts, but the high levels of evapotranspiration cause desert levels of aridity.

Indigenous peoples make up the majority of the population living in the Great Victoria Desert. There are several different peoples living here, including the Kogara, Mirning, and Pitjantjatjara. Some human activities that take place in the desert are mining and the testing of nuclear weapons.

Desert shrubs and a couple of varieties of Eucalyptus trees are able to survive in places throughout the Great Victoria Desert. The wildlife consists mostly of small animals, of which there are a variety of lizard species. The dingo and two types of monitor lizards are predators that live in the desert. 31% of the desert is within protected areas.

Kalahari Desert

A peaceful dusk scene in the Kalahari Desert with two possible antelopes grazing among sparse vegetation under a purple sky.
Wildebeest in the Kalahari Desert

Total area: 220,000 mi2 (570,000 km2)
Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa

The Kalahari is a large desert that stretches through three countries in Southern Africa, covering a great portion of Botswana. The desert’s name comes from the Tswana word Kgalagadi, which translates to “waterless place” in English.

The western portion of the Kalahari Desert features chains of sand dunes that each extend for more than one mile and are between 20 and 200 feet in height. These chains of dunes are separated by parallel depressions that are used for traveling throughout this part of the desert.

Interestingly, the northern reaches of the Kalahari Desert receive significantly more rainfall than usually qualifies an area as a desert. However, the deep sands in this region cause rainfall to drain almost instantly, resulting in an absolute absence of surface water. The southwestern region of the Kalahari Desert fits with the more traditional criteria of a desert.

Animals that call the Kalahari Desert home include migratory birds and large predators like lions, cheetahs, leopards, and African wild dogs. There are also some seasonal wetlands in the Kalahari, such as the Makgadikgadi Pans, which are visited by thousands of flamingos.

Great Basin Desert

A dirt path through a sparse desert leads to Pyramid Lake under a clear blue sky in the Great Basin Desert.
Road to Pyramid Lake, Nevada in the Great Basin

Total area: 190,000 mi2 (490,000 km2)
United States

The Great Basin Desert is situated in the Western United States, covering large sections of Utah and Nevada. It is bounded by the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the west, the Wasatch Mountains to the east, the Colombia Plateau to the north, and the Mojave Desert to the south.

Wide valleys and parallel mountain ranges define the desert’s geography, and the entire desert has a fairly high elevation. There are 33 mountain peaks in the Great Basin with summits of 9,800 feet (3,000 m) or more. At the lower altitudes of the Great Basin, salty dry lakes make up much of the landscape. Forests of pinyon and juniper trees occupy the higher elevations of the desert. The variation in habitat across the desert has led to the existence of distinct, isolated groups of plants and animals throughout.

The isolation of animal groups in the Great Basin makes them more susceptible to extinction. Some of the forces causing extinction in the desert include livestock grazing, mining, construction, and the pumping of groundwater. The least tern and the Utah prairie dog are two animals in the desert that are threatened or endangered.

Syrian Desert

Ancient columns and ruins at Palmyra in the Syrian Desert under a clear sky.
The ruins of Palmyra in the Syrian Desert

Total area: 190,000 mi2 (490,000 km2)
Syria, Jorda, Saudi Arabia, Iraq

The Syrian Desert spans the majority of both Syria and Jordan as well as portions of Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Until modern times, the desert formed a mostly impenetrable barrier between populations. Today, there are major motorways and oil pipelines that cross the desert, partially the result of oil exploitation during the 1970s. Several nomadic Bedouin tribes inhabit the desert.

The desert is bordered by the Orontes Valley to the west, the Euphrates to the east, fertile areas in the north, and the Arabian Desert in the south. The desert receives so little rainfall that it is sometimes called one of the aridest deserts in the world. Animals that live here include small rodents like the golden hamster (which originated in this desert) and animals that pray on these rodents like snakes, scorpions, and spiders.

One of the most important ancient cities in the Syrian Desert is Palmyra. It served as a trading center during the Roman era, its importance owing to its strategic location along the silk road.

Image Sources and Copyright Information
  • Map Highlighting the World’s Largest Deserts: © Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock