• Deserts are areas that receive very little precipitation. People often use the adjectives “hot,” “dry,” and “empty” to describe deserts, but these words do not tell the whole story. Although some deserts are very hot, with daytime temperatures as high as 54°C (130°F), other deserts have cold winters or are cold year-round. And most deserts, far from being empty and lifeless, are home to a variety of plants, animals, and other organisms. People have adapted to life in the desert for thousands of years.

    One thing all deserts have in common is that they are arid, or dry. Most experts agree that a desert is an area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year. The amount of evaporation in a desert often greatly exceeds the annual rainfall. In all deserts, there is little water available for plants and other organisms.

    Deserts are found on every continent and cover about one-fifth of Earth’s land area. They are home to around 1 billion people—one-sixth of the Earth’s population.

    Although the word “desert” may bring to mind a sea of shifting sand, dunes cover only about 10 percent of the world’s deserts. Some deserts are mountainous. Others are dry expanses of rock, sand, or salt flats.

    Kinds of Deserts

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

    Subtropical Deserts
    Subtropical deserts are caused by the circulation patterns of air masses. They are found along the Tropic of Cancer, between 15 and 30 degrees north of the Equator, or along the Tropic of Capricorn, between 15 and 30 degrees south of the Equator.

    Hot, moist air rises into the atmosphere near the Equator. As the air rises, it cools and drops its moisture as heavy tropical rains. The resulting cooler, drier air mass moves away from the Equator. As it approaches the tropics, the air descends and warms up again. The descending air hinders the formation of clouds, so very little rain falls on the land below.

    The world’s largest hot desert, the Sahara, is a subtropical desert in northern Africa. The Sahara Desert is almost the size of the entire continental United States. Other subtropical deserts include the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa and the Tanami Desert in northern Australia.

    Coastal Deserts
    Cold ocean currents contribute to the formation of coastal deserts. Air blowing toward shore, chilled by contact with cold water, produces a layer of fog. This heavy fog drifts onto land. Although humidity is high, the atmospheric changes that normally cause rainfall are not present. A coastal desert may be almost totally rainless, yet damp with fog.

    The Atacama Desert, on the Pacific shores of Chile, is a coastal desert. Some areas of the Atacama are often covered by fog. But the region can go decades without rainfall. In fact, the Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth. Some weather stations in the Atacama have never recorded a drop of rain.

    Rain Shadow Deserts
    Rain shadow deserts exist near the leeward slopes of some mountain ranges. Leeward slopes face away from prevailing winds.

    When moisture-laden air hits a mountain range, it is forced to rise. The air then cools and forms clouds that drop moisture on the windward (wind-facing) slopes. When the air moves over the mountaintop and begins to descend the leeward slopes, there is little moisture left. The descending air warms up, making it difficult for clouds to form.

    Death Valley, in the U.S. states of California and Nevada, is a rain shadow desert. Death Valley, the lowest and driest place in North America, is in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

    Interior Deserts
    Interior deserts, which are found in the heart of continents, exist because no moisture-laden winds reach them. By the time air masses from coastal areas reach the interior, they have lost all their moisture. Interior deserts are sometimes called inland deserts.

    The Gobi Desert, in China and Mongolia, lies hundreds of kilometers from the ocean. Winds that reach the Gobi have long since lost their moisture. The Gobi is also in the rain shadow of the Himalaya mountains to the south.

    Polar Deserts
    Parts of the Arctic and the Antarctic are classified as deserts. These polar deserts contain great quantities of water, but most of it is locked in glaciers and ice sheets year-round. So, despite the presence of millions of liters of water, there is actually little available for plants and animals.

    The largest desert in the world is also the coldest. Almost the entire continent of Antarctica is a polar desert, experiencing little precipitation. Few organisms can withstand the freezing, dry climate of Antarctica.

    Changing Deserts

    The regions that are deserts today were not always so dry. Between 8000 and 3000 BCE, for example, the Sahara had a much milder, moister climate. Climatologists identify this period as the “Green Sahara.”

    Archaeological evidence of past settlements is abundant in the middle of what are arid, unproductive areas of the Sahara today. This evidence includes rock paintings, graves, and tools. Fossils and artifacts show that lime and olive trees, oaks, and oleanders once bloomed in the Sahara. Elephants, gazelles, rhinos, giraffes, and people used stream-fed pools and lakes.

    There were three or four other moist periods in the Sahara. Similar lush conditions existed as recently as 25,000 years ago. Between the moist periods came periods of dryness much like today’s.

    The Sahara is not the only desert to have dramatic climate change. The Ghaggar River, in what is now India and Pakistan, was a major water source for Mohenjo-daro, an urban area of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. Over time, the Ghaggar changed course and now only flows during the rainy monsoon season. Mohenjo-daro is now a part of the vast Thar and Cholistan deserts.

    Most of Earth’s deserts will continue to undergo periods of climate change.

    Desert Characteristics

    Humidity—water vapor in the air—is near zero in most deserts. Light rains often evaporate in the dry air, never reaching the ground. Rainstorms sometimes come as violent cloudbursts. A cloudburst may bring as much as 25 centimeters (10 inches) of rain in a single hour—the only rain the desert gets all year.

    Desert humidity is usually so low that not enough water vapor exists to form clouds. The sun’s rays beat down through cloudless skies and bake the land. The ground heats the air so much that air rises in waves you can actually see. These shimmering waves confuse the eye, causing travelers to see distorted images called mirages.

    Temperature extremes are a characteristic of most deserts. In some deserts, temperatures rise so high that people are at risk of dehydration and even death. At night, these areas cool quickly because they lack the insulation provided by humidity and clouds. Temperatures can drop to 4°C (40°F) or lower.

    In the Chihuahuan Desert, in the United States and Mexico, temperatures can vary by dozens of degrees in one day. Daytime temperatures in the Chihuahua can climb beyond 37°C (100°F), while nighttime temperatures can dip below freezing (0°C or 32°F).

    Winds at speeds of about 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour) sweep through some deserts. With little vegetation to block it, the wind can carry sand and dust across entire continents and even oceans. Windstorms in the Sahara hurl so much material into the air that African dust sometimes crosses the Atlantic Ocean. Sunsets on the Atlantic coast of the U.S. state of Florida, for example, can be tinted yellow.

    First-time visitors to deserts are often amazed by the unusual landscapes, which may include dunes, towering bare peaks, flat-topped rock formations, and smoothly polished canyons. These features differ from those of wetter regions, which are often gently rounded by regular rainfall and softened by lush vegetation.

    Water helps carve desert lands. During a sudden storm, water scours the dry, hard-baked land, gathering sand, rocks, and other loose material as it flows. As the muddy water roars downhill, it cuts deep channels, called arroyos or wadis. A thunderstorm can send a fast-moving torrent of water—a flash flood—down a dry arroyo. A flash flood like this can sweep away anything and anyone in its path. Many desert regions discourage visitors from hiking or camping in arroyos for this reason.

    Even urban areas in deserts can be vulnerable to flash floods. The city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, sits in the Arabian Desert. In 2011, Jeddah was struck by a sudden thunderstorm and flash flood. Roads and buildings were washed away, and more than 100 people died.

    Even in a desert, water and wind eventually wear away softer rock. Sometimes, rock is carved into tablelike formations such as mesas and buttes. At the foot of these formations, water drops its burden of gravel, sand, and other sediment, forming deposits called alluvial fans.

    Many deserts have no drainage to a river, lake, or ocean. Rainwater, including water from flash floods, collects in large depressions called basins. The shallow lakes that form in basins eventually evaporate, leaving playas, or salt-surfaced lake beds. Playas, also called sinks, pans, or salt flats, can be hundreds of kilometers wide.

    The Black Rock Desert in the U.S. state of Nevada, for instance, is all that remains of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan. The hard, flat surface of desert salt flats are often ideal for car racing. In 1997, British pilot Andy Green set the land speed record in Black Rock Desert—1,228 kilometers per hour (763 miles per hour). Green’s vehicle, the ThrustSSC, was the first car to break the sound barrier.

    Wind is the primary sculptor of a desert’s hills of sand, called dunes. Wind builds dunes that rise as high as 180 meters (590 feet). Dunes migrate constantly with the wind. They usually shift a few meters a year, but a particularly violent sandstorm can move a dune 20 meters (65 feet) in a single day.

    Sandstorms may bury everything in their path—rocks, fields, and even towns. One legend holds that the Persian Emperor Cambyses II sent an army of 50,000 men to the Siwa Oasis in western Egypt around 530 BCE. Halfway there, an enormous sandstorm swallowed the entire group. Archaeologists in the Sahara have been unsuccessfully looking for the “Lost Army of Cambyses” ever since.

    Water in the Desert

    Rain is usually the main source of water in a desert, but it falls very rarely. Many desert dwellers rely on groundwater, stored in aquifers below the surface. Groundwater comes from rain or other precipitation, like snow or hail. It seeps into the ground, where it can remain for thousands of years.

    Underground water sometimes rises to the surface, forming springs or seeps. A fertile green area called an oasis, or cienega, may exist near such a water source. About 90 major, inhabited oases dot the Sahara. These oases are supported by some of the world’s largest supplies of underground water. People, animals, and plants all surround these oases, which provide stable access to water, food, and shelter.

    When groundwater doesn’t seep to the surface, people often drill into the ground to get to it. Many desert cities, from the American Southwest to the Middle East, rely heavily on such aquifers to fill their water needs. Rural Israeli communities called kibbutzim rely on aquifers to furnish water for crops and even fish farming in the dry Negev Desert.

    Drilling into aquifers provides water for drinking, agriculture, industry, and hygiene. However, it comes at a cost to the environment. Aquifers take a long time to refill. If desert communities use groundwater faster than it is replenished, water shortages can occur. The Mojave Desert, in southern California and Nevada, for instance, is sinking due to aquifer depletion. The booming desert communities of Las Vegas, Nevada, and California’s “Inland Empire” are using water faster than the aquifer is being refilled. The water level in the aquifer has sunk as much as 30 meters (100 feet) since the 1950s, while the land above the aquifer has sunk as much as 10 centimeters (4 inches).

    Rivers sometimes provide water in a desert. The Colorado River, for instance, flows through three deserts in the American Southwest: the Great Basin, the Sonoran, and the Mojave. Seven states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California—rely on the river for some of their water supply.

    People often modify rivers to help distribute and store water in a desert. The Nile River ecosystem dominates the eastern part of the Sahara Desert, for instance. The Nile provides the most reliable, plentiful source of freshwater in the region. Between 1958 and 1971, the government of Egypt constructed a massive dam on the Upper Nile (the southern part of the river, near Egypt’s border with Sudan). The Aswan Dam harnesses the power of the Nile for hydroelectricity used in industry. It also stores water in a manmade lake, Lake Nasser, to protect the country’s communities and agriculture against drought.

    Construction of the Aswan High Dam was a huge engineering project. Local desert communities can divert rivers on a smaller scale. Throughout the Middle East, communities have dug artificial wadis, where freshwater can flow during rainy seasons. In countries like Yemen, artificial wadis can carry enough water for whitewater rafting trips during certain times of the year.

    When deserts and water supplies cross state and national borders, people often fight over water rights. This has happened among the states in the Colorado River Basin, which have negotiated for many years over the division of the river’s water. Rapidly expanding populations in California, Nevada, and Arizona have compounded the problem. Agreements that were made in the early 20th century failed to account for Native American water rights. Mexican access to the Colorado, which has its delta in the Mexican state of Baja California, was ignored. Desert agriculture, including cotton production, demanded a large portion of the Colorado. The environmental impact of dams was not considered when the structures were built. States of the Colorado River Basin continue to negotiate today to prepare for population growth, agricultural development, and the possibility of future droughts.

    Life in the Desert

    Plants and animals adapt to desert habitats in many ways. Desert plants grow far apart, allowing them to obtain as much water around them as possible. This spacing gives some desert regions a desolate appearance.

    In some deserts, plants have unique leaves to capture sunlight for photosynthesis, the process plants use to make food. Small pores in the leaves, called stomata, take in carbon dioxide. When they open, they also release water vapor. In the desert, all these stomata would quickly dry out a plant. So desert plants typically have tiny, waxy leaves. Cactuses have no leaves at all. They produce food in their green stems.

    Some desert plants, such as cactuses, have shallow, wide-spreading root systems. The plants soak up water quickly and store it in their cells. Saguaro cactuses, which live in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico, expand like accordions to store water in the cells of their trunks and branches. A large saguaro is a living storage tower that can hold hundreds of liters of water.

    Other desert plants have very deep roots. The roots of a mesquite tree, for example, can reach water more than 30 meters (100 feet) underground.

    Mesquites, saguaros, and many other desert plants also have thorns to protect them from grazing animals.

    Many desert plants are annuals, which means they only live for one season. Their seeds may lie dormant for years during long dry spells. When rain finally comes, the seeds sprout rapidly. Plants grow, bloom, produce new seeds, and die, often in a short span of time. A soaking rain can change a desert into a wonderland of flowers almost overnight.

    Animals that have adapted to a desert environment are called xerocoles. Xerocoles include species of insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Some xerocoles avoid the sun by resting in scarce shade. Many escape the heat in cool burrows they dig in the ground. The fennec fox, for example, is native to the Sahara Desert. Fennec fox communities work together to dig large burrows, some as large as 93 square meters (1,000 square feet). Dew can collect in these burrows, providing the foxes with fresh water. However, fennec foxes have adapted so they do not have to drink water at all: Their kidneys retain enough water from the food they eat.

    Most xerocoles are nocturnal. They sleep through the hot days and do their hunting and foraging at night. Deserts that seem desolate during the day are very active in the cool nighttime air. Foxes, coyotes, rats, and rabbits are all nocturnal desert mammals. Snakes and lizards are familiar desert reptiles. Insects such as moths and flies are abundant in the desert. Most desert birds are restricted to areas near water, such as river banks. However, some birds, such as the roadrunner, have adapted to life in the desert. The roadrunner, native to the deserts of North America, obtains water from its food. 

    Some xerocoles have bodies that help them handle the heat. A desert tortoise’s thick shell insulates the animal and reduces water loss. Sand lizards, native to the deserts of Europe and Asia, are nicknamed “dancing lizards” because of the way they quickly lift one leg at a time off the hot desert sand. A jackrabbit’s long ears contain blood vessels that release heat. Some desert vultures urinate on their own legs, cooling them by evaporation.

    Many desert animals have developed ingenious ways of getting the water they need. The thorny devil, a lizard that lives in the Australian Outback, has a system of tiny grooves and channels on its body that lead to its mouth. The lizard catches rain and dew in these grooves and sucks them into its mouth by gulping.

    Camels are very efficient water users. The animals do not store water in their humps, as people once believed. The humps store fat. Hydrogen molecules in the fat combine with inhaled oxygen to form water. During a shortage of food or water, camels draw upon this fat for nutrition and moisture. Dromedary camels, native to the Arabian and Sahara deserts, can lose up to 30 percent of their body weight without harm. Camels, nicknamed “ships of the desert,” are widely used for transportation, meat, and milk in the Maghreb (a region in Northwest Africa), the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent.

    People and the Desert

    About 1 billion people live in deserts. Many of these people rely on centuries-old customs to make their lives as comfortable as possible

    Civilizations throughout the Middle East and Maghreb have adapted their clothing to the hot, dry conditions of the Sahara and Arabian deserts. Clothing is versatile and based on robes made of rectangles of fabric. Long-sleeved, full-length, and often white, these robes shield all but the head and hands from the wind, sand, heat, and cold. White reflects sunlight, and the loose fit allows cooling air to flow across the skin.

    These robes of loose cloth can be adjusted (folded) for length, sleeves, and pockets, depending on the wearer and the climate. A thobe is a full-length, long-sleeved white robe. An abaya is a sleeveless cloak that protects the wearer from dust and heat. A djebba is a short, square pullover shirt worn by men. A kaffiyeh is a rectangular piece of cloth folded loosely around the head to protect the wearer from sun exposure, dust, and sand. It can be folded and unfolded to cover the mouth, nose, and eyes. Kaffiyehs are secured around the head with a cord called an agal. A turban is similar to a kaffiyeh, but wrapped around the head instead of being secured with an agal. Turbans are also much longer—up to six meters (20 feet)!

    Desert dwellers have also adapted their shelters for the unique climate. The ancient Anasazi peoples of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico constructed huge apartment complexes in the rocky cliffs of the Sonoran Desert. These cliff dwellings, sometimes dozens of meters off the ground, were constructed with thick, earthen walls that provided insulation. Although temperatures outside varied greatly from day to night, temperatures inside did not. Tiny, high windows let in only a little light and helped keep out dust and sand.

    The need to find food and water has led many desert civilizations to become nomadic. Nomadic cultures are those that do not have permanent settlements. In the deserts of the Middle East and Asia, nomadic tent communities continue to flourish. Tent walls are made of thick, sturdy cloth that can keep out sand and dust, but also allow cool breezes to blow through. Tents can be rolled up and transported on pack animals (usually horses, donkeys, or camels). Nomads move frequently so their flocks of sheep and goats will have water and grazing land.

    Besides animals like camels and goats, a variety of desert vegetation is found in oases and along the shores of rivers and lakes. Figs, olives, and oranges thrive in desert oases and have been harvested for centuries.

    Some desert areas rely on resources brought from more fertile areas—food trucked in from distant farmlands or, more frequently, water piped from wetter regions. Large areas of desert soil are irrigated by water pumped from underground sources or brought by canal from distant rivers or lakes. The booming Inland Empire of southeastern California is made up of deserts (the Mojave and the Sonoran) that rely on water for agriculture, industry, and residential development. Canals and aqueducts supply the Inland Empire with water from the Colorado River, to the east, and the Sierra Nevada snowmelt to the north.

    A variety of crops can thrive in these irrigated oases. Sugar cane is a very water-intensive crop mostly harvested in tropical regions. However, sugar cane is also harvested in the deserts of Pakistan and Australia. Water for irrigation is transported from hundreds of kilometers away, or drilled from hundreds of meters underground.

    Oases in desert climates have been popular spots for tourists for centuries. Spas ring the Dead Sea, a saline lake in the Judean Desert of Israel and Jordan. The Dead Sea has had flourishing spas since the time of King David.

    Air transportation and the development of air conditioning have made the sunny climate of deserts even more accessible and attractive to people from colder regions. Populations at resorts like Palm Springs, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada, have boomed. Desert parks, such as Death Valley National Park, California, attract thousands of visitors every year. People who migrate to the warm, dry desert for the winter and return to more temperate climates in the spring are sometimes called “snowbirds.”

    In rural areas, hot days turn into cool nights, providing welcome relief from the scorching sun. But in cities, structures like buildings, roads, and parking lots hold on to daytime heat long after the sun sets. The temperature stays high even at night, making the city an “island” of heat in the middle of the desert. This is called the urban heat island effect. It is less pronounced in desert cities than cities built in heavily forested areas.  Cities like New York City, New York, and Atlanta, Georgia, can be 5 degrees warmer than the surrounding area. New York was built on wetland habitat, and Atlanta was built in a wooded area. Cities like Phoenix, Arizona, or Kuwait City, Kuwait, have a much smaller urban heat island effect. They may be only slightly warmer than the surrounding desert.

    Deserts can hold economically valuable resources that drive civilizations and economies. The most notable desert resource in the world is the massive oil reserves in the Arabian Desert of the Middle East. More than half of the proven oil reserves in the world lie beneath the sands of the Arabian Desert, mostly in Saudi Arabia. The oil industry draws companies, migrant workers, engineers, geologists, and biologists to the Middle East.


    Desertification is the process of productive cropland turning into non-productive, desert-like environments. Desertification usually happens in semi-arid areas that border deserts.

    Human activities are a primary cause of desertification. These activities include overgrazing of livestock, deforestation, overcultivation of farmland, and poor irrigation practices. Overgrazing and deforestation remove plants that anchor the soil. As a result, wind and water erode the nutrient-rich topsoil. Hooves from grazing livestock compact the soil, preventing it from absorbing water and fertilizers. Agricultural production is devastated, and the economy of a region suffers.

    The deserts of Patagonia, the largest in South America, are expanding due to desertification. Patagonia is a major agricultural region where non-native species such as cattle and sheep graze on grassland. Sheep and cattle have reduced the native vegetation in Patagonia, causing loss of valuable topsoil. More than 30 percent of the grasslands of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia are faced with desertification.

    People often overuse natural resources to survive and profit in the short term, while neglecting long-term sustainability. Madagascar, for instance, is a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. Seeking greater economic opportunities, farmers in Madagascar engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture. This method relies on cutting and burning forests to create fields for crops. Unfortunately, at the time farmers were investing in slash-and-burn agriculture, Madagascar experienced long-term droughts. With little vegetation to anchor it, the thin topsoil quickly eroded. The island’s central plateau is now a barren desert.

    Rapid population growth also can lead to overuse of resources, killing plant life and depleting nutrients from the soil. Lake Chad is a source of freshwater for four countries on the edge of the Sahara Desert: Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria. These developing countries use Lake Chad’s shallow waters for agriculture, industry, and hygiene. Since the 1960s, Lake Chad has shrunk to half its size. Desertification has severely reduced the wetland habitats surrounding the lake, as well as its fishery and grazing lands.

    Desertification is not new. In the 1930s, parts of the Great Plains of North America became the “Dust Bowl” through a combination of drought and poor farming practices. Millions of people had to leave their farms and seek a living in other parts of the country.

    Desertification is an increasing problem. Every year, about 6 million square kilometers (2.3 million square miles) of land become useless for cultivation due to desertification. The Sahara Desert crept 100 kilometers (39 miles) south between 1950 and 1975. South Africa is losing 300-400 million metric tons (330-441 short tons) of topsoil each year.

    Many countries are working to reduce the rates of desertification. Trees and other vegetation are being planted to break the force of the wind and to hold the soil. Windbreaks made of trees have been planted throughout the Sahel, the southern border region of the Sahara Desert. These windbreaks anchor the soil and prevent sand from invading populated areas.

    In China’s Tengger Desert, researchers have developed another way to control wandering dunes. They anchor the drifting sand with a gridlike network of straw fences. Straw is poked partway into the sand, forming a pattern of small squares along the contours of the dunes. The resulting fences break the force of the wind at ground level, stopping dune movement by confining the sand within the squares of the grid.

    New technologies are also being developed to combat desertification. “Nanoclay” is a substance sprayed on desert sands that acts as a binding agent. Nanoclay keeps the sand moist, clumping it together and preventing it from blowing away.

    Deserts Get Hotter

    Rising temperatures can have huge effects on fragile desert ecosystems. Global warming is the most current instance of climate change. Human activities such as burning fossil fuels contribute to global warming.

    In deserts, temperatures are rising even faster than the global average. This warming has effects beyond simply making hot deserts hotter. For example, increasing temperatures lead to the loss of nitrogen, an important nutrient, from the soil. Heat prevents microbes from converting nutrients to nitrates, which are necessary for almost all living things. This can reduce the already limited plant life in deserts.

    Climate change also affects rainfall patterns. Climate scientists predict that global warming will lead to more rainfall in some regions, but less rainfall in other places. Areas facing reduced precipitation include areas with some of the largest deserts in the world: North Africa (Sahara), the American Southwest (Sonoran and Chihuahuan), the southern Andes (Patagonia), and western Australia (Great Victoria).

    In literature and in legend, deserts are often described as hostile places to avoid. Today, people value desert resources and biodiversity. Communities, governments, and organizations are working to preserve desert habitats and increase desert productivity.

    I've been through the desert on a rock with no name.

    Freak Floods
    Deserts are defined by their dryness. However, flash floods take more lives in deserts than thirst does.

    Devil of a Storm
    Dust devils are common in hot deserts. They look like tiny tornadoes, but they start on the ground rather than in the sky. When patches of ground get very hot, the heated air above them begins to rise and spin. This whirling column of hot air picks up dust and dirt. These spinning columns of dirt can rise hundreds of feet in the air.

    Rising from the Ashes
    The desert city of Phoenix, Arizona, is named for the mythical desert bird that burns to death only to be reborn, rising from its own ashes. The city of Phoenix was built on top of the ruins of canals built by the Hohokam people between 500 and 1450 CE. The Hohokam used the canals to irrigate their crops. Modern-day residents also rely on an extensive canal system to provide irrigation.

    Hot and Cold Deserts
    The largest hot desert in the world is the Sahara, which is 9 million square kilometers (3.5 million square miles). It isn't the hottest place on Earth, though. That distinction belongs to Death Valley, in California's Mojave Desert. The highest temperature on Earth was recorded there: 56.7 C (134.1 F).

    The largest polar desert is Antarctica, at 13 million square kilometers (5 million square miles). Antarctica boasts the lowest official temperature recorded on Earth: -89.2 C (-128.6 F), recorded on July 21, 1983.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abaya Noun

    long, thin, loose cloak worn by some Muslim women.

    accessibility Noun

    the ease with which a place or thing can be reached from other places.

    adapt Verb

    to adjust to new surroundings or a new situation.

    agal Noun

    cord wrapped around a kaffiyeh, or head covering, to keep it in place.

    agricultural development Noun

    modern farming methods that include mechanical, chemical, engineering and technological methods. Also called industrial agriculture.

    agriculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    air conditioning Noun

    system that cools the air.

    air mass Noun

    a large volume of air that is mostly consistent, horizontally, in temperature and humidity.

    Encyclopedic Entry: air mass
    alluvial fan Noun

    fan-shaped deposit of eroded material, usually sediment and sand.

    Encyclopedic Entry: alluvial fan
    alluvium Noun

    gravel, sand, and smaller materials deposited by flowing water.

    Anasazi Noun

    (1200 BCE-1300 CE) people and culture native to what is now the southwestern United States. Also called Ancestral Puebloans.

    anchor Verb

    to hold firmly in place.

    ancient Adjective

    very old.

    annual Adjective


    Antarctic Noun

    region at Earth's extreme south, encompassed by the Antarctic Circle.

    aqueduct Noun

    a pipe or passage used for carrying water from a distance.

    aquifer Noun

    an underground layer of rock or earth which holds groundwater.

    Encyclopedic Entry: aquifer
    aquifer depletion Noun

    process by which people pump more water out of aquifers than can be replaced by rain or snow.

    archaeological Adjective

    having to do with the study of ancient people and cultures.

    archaeologist Noun

    person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

    Arctic Noun

    region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Arctic
    arid Adjective


    arroyo Noun

    deep channel or canyon, often dry except during flash floods. Also called a wadi.

    artifact Noun

    material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.

    Aswan Dam Noun

    system of two dams in Egypt that control the flow of the Nile River for agricultural, electrical, and sanitary uses.

    Atacama Desert Noun

    large, nearly rainless desert in western South America.

    atmospheric changes Noun

    alterations in the layer of air surrounding the Earth, such as an increase of pollution or humidity.

    basin Noun

    a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.

    Encyclopedic Entry: basin
    biodiversity Noun

    all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity
    biologist Noun

    scientist who studies living organisms.

    burrow Noun

    small hole or tunnel used for shelter.

    butte Noun

    single hill or rock formation that rises sharply from a flat landscape, usually in a desert.

    Encyclopedic Entry: butte
    cactus Noun

    type of plant native to dry regions.

    Cambyses II Noun

    (?-522 BCE) emperor of Persia.

    canal Noun

    artificial waterway.

    canyon Noun

    deep, narrow valley with steep sides.

    Encyclopedic Entry: canyon
    carbon dioxide Noun

    greenhouse gas produced by animals during respiration and used by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

    cattle Noun

    cows and oxen.

    cell Noun

    smallest working part of a living organism.

    characteristic Noun

    physical, cultural, or psychological feature of an organism, place, or object.

    cienega Noun

    oasis or swampy wetland, usually fed by natural springs.

    circulation Noun

    moving in a circular motion.

    civilization Noun

    complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

    Encyclopedic Entry: civilization
    cliff Noun

    steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: cliff
    climate Noun

    all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    climate change Noun

    gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate change
    climatologist Noun

    person who studies long-term patterns in weather.

    cloud Noun

    visible mass of tiny water droplets or ice crystals in Earth's atmosphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: cloud
    cloudburst Noun

    sudden, heavy rainfall.

    coastal desert Noun

    arid areas usually found on the western edges of continents near the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    cotton Noun

    cloth made from fibers of the cotton plant.

    crop Noun

    agricultural produce.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crop
    cultivate Verb

    to prepare and nurture the land for crops.

    current Noun

    steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

    Encyclopedic Entry: current
    dam Noun

    structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.

    Death Valley Noun

    (~3,900 square kilometers/1,500 square miles) dry basin in the U.S. states of California and Nevada, the lowest point in North America (86 meters/282 feet below sea level).

    decade Noun

    10 years.

    deforestation Noun

    destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.

    dehydration Noun

    illness in which the body loses too much water.

    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    desertification Noun

    rapid depletion of plant life and topsoil, often associated with drought and human activity.

    desolate Adjective

    barren, spare, or lonely.

    devastate Verb

    to destroy.

    dew Noun

    water droplets condensed from the atmosphere onto cool surfaces near the ground.

    Encyclopedic Entry: dew
    divert Verb

    to direct away from a familiar path.

    djebba Noun

    short, pullover tunic or shirt worn by men.

    dominate Verb

    to overpower or control.

    dormant Adjective

    state of minimal growth or activity.

    drain Verb

    to empty.

    drought Noun

    period of greatly reduced precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: drought
    dune Noun

    a mound or ridge of loose sand that has been deposited by wind.

    Encyclopedic Entry: dune
    dust Noun

    tiny, dry particles of material solid enough for wind to carry.

    Encyclopedic Entry: dust
    Dust Bowl Noun

    (1930-1940) term for the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada when severe dust storms forced thousands of people off their farms.

    economy Noun

    system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

    ecosystem Noun

    community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    efficient Adjective

    performing a task with skill and minimal waste.

    engineering Noun

    the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

    enormous Adjective

    very large.

    Equator Noun

    imaginary line around the Earth, another planet, or star running east-west, 0 degrees latitude.

    Encyclopedic Entry: equator
    erode Verb

    to wear away.

    evaporation Noun

    process by which liquid water becomes water vapor.

    Encyclopedic Entry: evaporation
    exceed Verb

    to go beyond the limit.

    fertile Adjective

    able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.

    fertilizer Noun

    nutrient-rich chemical substance (natural or manmade) applied to soil to encourage plant growth.

    fishery Noun

    industry or occupation of harvesting fish, either in the wild or through aquaculture.

    fish farming Noun

    art and science of raising and harvesting fish and other seafood, such as shrimp or crabs.

    flash flood Noun

    sudden, short, and heavy flow of water.

    flourish Verb

    to thrive or be successful.

    fog Noun

    clouds at ground level.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fog
    forage Verb

    to search for food or other needs.

    forest Verb

    to cover with trees and other vegetation.

    fossil Noun

    remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fossil
    fossil fuel Noun

    coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

    fragile Noun

    delicate or easily broken.

    geologist Noun

    person who studies the physical formations of the Earth.

    glacier Noun

    mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: glacier
    global warming Noun

    increase in the average temperature of the Earth's air and oceans.

    Encyclopedic Entry: global warming
    Gobi Desert Noun

    large desert in China and Mongolia.

    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    grassland Noun

    ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

    grave Noun

    specific place where a body is buried.

    gravel Noun

    small stones or pebbles.

    grazing animal Noun

    animal that feeds on grasses, trees, and shrubs.

    Great Plains Noun

    grassland region of North America, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.

    Green Sahara Noun

    (7000-3000 BCE) moist, temperate climate of the present-day Sahara Desert during the Neolithic Subpluvial period. Also called the Wet Sahara.

    groundwater Noun

    water found in an aquifer.

    Encyclopedic Entry: groundwater
    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    hinder Verb

    to delay or hold back.

    hoof Noun

    thick, horny covering of the feet of animals such as horses and cattle.

    hostile Adjective

    confrontational or unfriendly.

    humidity Noun

    amount of water vapor in the air.

    Encyclopedic Entry: humidity
    hydroelectricity Noun

    power generated by moving water converted to electricity. Also called hydroelectric energy or hydroelectric power.

    hydrogen Noun

    chemical element with the symbol H, whose most common isotope consists of a single electron and a single proton.

    hygiene Noun

    science and methods of keeping clean and healthy.

    ice sheet Noun

    thick layer of glacial ice that covers a large area of land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ice sheet
    industry Noun

    activity that produces goods and services.

    Indus Valley Civilization Noun

    (2500-1500 BCE) civilization that flourished in the Indus River Valley, in present-day Pakistan.

    ingenious Adjective

    very clever or smart.

    Inland Empire Noun

    desert region in southern California, consisting of parts of Riverside, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles counties.

    insulation Noun

    material used to keep an object warm.

    interior desert Noun

    arid area found in the interior of continents, formed because no moisture-laden winds reach them.

    irrigate Verb

    to water.

    kaffiyeh Noun

    short headdress worn by Arab men and tied with a cord (agal).

    kibbutzim Plural Noun

    (singular: kibbutz) Israeli agricultural community organized under collective principles.

    kidney Noun

    organ that removes the waste products from blood and helps regulate general health.

    King David Noun

    (?1050-970 BCE) king of ancient Israel and major religious figure for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    leeward Adjective

    downwind, or facing away from prevailing winds.

    legendary Adjective

    famous, heroic, or celebrated.

    literature Noun

    written material, including novels, poetry, drama and history.

    livestock noun, plural noun

    animals raised for sale and profit.

    lush Adjective

    abundant and rich.

    Maghreb Noun

    region in North Africa made of five countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania.

    mesa Noun

    broad, flat-topped landform with steep sides.

    Encyclopedic Entry: mesa
    mesquite Noun

    tree or shrub native to the hot deserts of North America.

    microbe Noun

    tiny organism, usually a bacterium.

    Middle East Noun

    region of southwest Asia and northeast Africa.

    migrate Verb

    to move from one place or activity to another.

    mirage Noun

    optical illusion formed under certain atmospheric conditions, in which objects appear to be reflected or displaced.

    modify Verb

    to change or alter.

    Mohenjo-daro Noun

    (2600-1500 BCE) metropolis of the Indus Valley civilization, in what is today Pakistan.

    molecule Noun

    smallest physical unit of a substance, consisting of two or more atoms linked together.

    monsoon Noun

    seasonal change in the direction of the prevailing winds of a region. Monsoon usually refers to the winds of the Indian Ocean and South Asia, which often bring heavy rains.

    Encyclopedic Entry: monsoon
    mountain range Noun

    series or chain of mountains that are close together.

    nanoclay Noun

    collection of tiny particles that acts as a binding agent to materials such as sand or plastics.

    Native American Noun

    person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.

    natural resource Noun

    a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.

    neglect Noun

    failure to pay attention.

    negotiate Verb

    to discuss with others of different viewpoints in order to reach an agreement, contract, or treaty.

    nitrate Noun

    type of salt used as fertilizer. Excess nitrates can choke freshwater ecosystems.

    nitrogen Noun

    chemical element with the symbol N, whose gas form is 78% of the Earth's atmosphere.

    nocturnal Adjective

    active at night.

    nomad Noun

    person who moves from place to place, without a fixed home.

    nomadic Adjective

    having to do with a way of life lacking permanent settlement.

    notable Adjective

    important or impressive.

    nutrient Noun

    substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient
    nutrition Noun

    process by which living organisms obtain food or nutrients, and use it for growth.

    oasis Noun

    area made fertile by a source of fresh water in an otherwise arid region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: oasis
    oil reserve Noun

    petroleum from a specific reservoir that can be successfully brought to the surface.

    oleander Noun

    shrub cultivated for its flowers.

    organism Noun

    living or once-living thing.

    Outback Noun

    remote, sparsely populated interior region of Australia.

    overcultivation Noun

    process of growing too many crops in too short a time period on one area of land.

    overgrazing Noun

    process of too many animals feeding on one area of pasture or grassland.

    oxygen Noun

    chemical element with the symbol O, whose gas form is 21% of the Earth's atmosphere.

    pack animal Noun

    domesticated animal used by humans for transporting goods.

    Patagonia Noun

    large plateau in southern South America, stretching from the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.

    photosynthesis Noun

    process by which plants turn water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide into water, oxygen, and simple sugars.

    plateau Noun

    large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plateau
    playa Noun

    large, flat expanse of earth covered by a thick layer of salt left by an evaporated saline lake or pond. Also called a salt flat, sink, or salt pan.

    polar desert Noun

    arid area found in the Arctic or Antarctic.

    pore Noun

    tiny opening.

    precipitation Noun

    all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation
    prevailing wind Noun

    wind that blows from one direction.

    primary Adjective

    first or most important.

    profit Noun

    money earned after production costs and taxes are subtracted.

    rain shadow Noun

    dry land on the side of a mountain facing away from prevailing winds.

    Encyclopedic Entry: rain shadow
    rain shadow desert Noun

    arid area found on the leeward side of mountain ranges.

    receive Verb

    to get or accept.

    resource Noun

    available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    root system Noun

    all of a plant's roots.

    rural Adjective

    having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.

    Sahara Desert Noun

    world's largest desert, in north Africa.

    Sahel Noun

    transition zone in northern Africa between the Sahara Desert in the north and the savanna ecosystems in the south.

    saline Adjective


    salt flat Noun

    large, flat expanse of earth covered by a thick layer of salt left by an evaporated saline lake or pond. Also called a playa, sink, or salt pan.

    sand Noun

    small, loose grains of disintegrated rocks.

    scarce Adjective


    scorching Adjective

    very hot.

    scour Verb

    to rub harshly, often to polish.

    shore Noun


    slash-and-burn Noun

    method of agriculture where trees and shrubs are cleared and burned to create cropland.

    snowbird Noun

    person who migrates to warm, dry climates in the winter and to cool, dry climates in the summer.

    snowmelt Noun

    water supplied by snow.

    sound barrier Noun

    speed of sound, 343 meters per second (1,125 feet per second).

    spa Noun

    facility, usually with mineral hot springs, offering health benefits.

    spring Noun

    small flow of water flowing naturally from an underground water source.

    stomata Plural Noun

    (singular: stoma) tiny openings on the surface of leaves that control the exchange of gases in a plant.

    straw Noun

    stalks of grain.

    subtropical desert Noun

    arid area found near the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, formed by the circulation of air masses. Also called a midlatitude desert.

    sugar cane Noun

    tall grass that is harvested to extract sugar from its sap or juice.

    sustainability Noun

    use of resources in such a manner that they will never be exhausted.

    temperature Noun

    degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

    Encyclopedic Entry: temperature
    thobe Noun

    long, loose robe or tunic made of thin cloth, usually white and worn by Arabic men.

    thunderstorm Noun

    cloud that produces thunder and lightning, often accompanied by heavy rains.

    topsoil Noun

    the most valuable, upper layer of soil, where most nutrients are found.

    Tropic of Cancer Noun

    line of latitude 23.5 degrees north of the Equator.

    Tropic of Capricorn Noun

    line of latitude 23.5 degrees south of the Equator.

    turban Noun

    man's head covering consisting of a long piece of cloth wrapped around a cap or around the head.

    unique Adjective

    one of a kind.

    urban area Noun

    developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

    Encyclopedic Entry: urban area
    urban heat island Noun

    city area that is always warmer than the surrounding area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: urban heat island
    vapor Noun

    visible liquid suspended in the air, such as fog.

    vegetation Noun

    all the plant life of a specific place.

    versatile Adjective

    able to adjust to different conditions.

    vulnerable Adjective

    capable of being hurt.

    wadi Noun

    deep channel or canyon, often dry except during flash floods. Also called an arroyo.

    water rights Plural Noun

    right of a consumer (person, business, or government) to use water from a specific source. Sometimes, water rights include the amount of water a consumer is allowed to use.

    weather station Noun

    area with tools and equipment for measuring changes in the atmosphere.

    wetland Noun

    area of land covered by shallow water or saturated by water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: wetland
    whitewater Noun

    fast-moving parts of a river.

    wind Noun

    movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.

    windbreak Noun

    structure that serves to interrupt an air current or flow of wind.

    windward Adjective

    facing or toward the wind.

    xerocole Noun

    animal that has adapted to live in the desert.