What is a Desert?
In short, a desert is an area that receives very little rainfall, causing it to be scorched. One false assumption about deserts is that they’re all hot. While this is true of some deserts that can reach temperatures of 54 °C in the daytime, some deserts experience cold winters, and some are cold all year round. Another misconception about deserts is that they’re all substantial empty spaces. There is a wide selection of plants and animals that live in deserts around the world. Moreover, several people groups have adapted to live in the desert over time.
One common belief about deserts that is true is that they are all dry. The dryness of deserts is rooted in their very definition, as they are places that receive very little rainfall. Scientists have widely agreed that an area of land must receive no more than 25 centimeters of precipitation a year to be classified as a desert.
There are deserts on every continent in the world, covering around ⅕ of the Earth’s land surface. Around 1 billion people live in these deserts, which comprise around ⅙ of the Earth’s population.
There are several different types of deserts:
- Subtropical Deserts
- Coastal deserts
- Rain Shadow Deserts
- Interior Deserts
- Polar Deserts
Now that we know what a desert is, let’s dive into the nine African deserts, starting with the largest and most famous.
- Sahara Desert
The Sahara is not only the largest desert in Africa but the world’s largest hot desert. In the summer, temperatures can reach a whopping 50 °C in the daytime. This scorching temperature, in turn, spreads to the 12 countries in North Africa. It is believed that the Sahara Desert was created around 7 million years ago, as remains of a giant sea called Tethys closed up.
To the north, the Sahara borders the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea; to the east, it borders the Red Sea; to the west, it borders the Atlantic Ocean; and to the south, it connects the transitional Sahel region.
A common misconception about this and other deserts is that they are one giant, consistent sandy patch of land with no variation. This is not true of most deserts, the Sahara included. Instead, the Sahara Desert comprises several regions with rainfall levels, temperatures, plants, and wildlife. This means that there are various terrains throughout the Sahara, such as sand dunes, volcanic mountains, plains, stony plateaus, and oases. The oases in the Sahara are vital as they have enabled trade routes between North African ports and those in sub-Saharan Africa.
Most of the Sahara is pretty barren, meaning there is little to no life. However, a selection of wildlife, including gazelles, deer, wild asses, baboons, hyenas, jackals, sand foxes, and mongooses, exist in this desert.
- Kalahari Desert
The Kalahari Desert is located in the center of Southern Africa and encompasses the majority of Botswana, certain regions of Namibia, and South Africa. The Kalahari Desert is pretty controversial, as some experts argue it is not technically a desert. This is because, in certain areas, the Kalahari Desert receives more than 25 centimeters of rainfall a year. The average rainfall for this desert is around 10 to 50 centimeters, allowing a range of vegetation, including resilient grasses, thorny shrubs, and acacia trees, to grow.
One of the prominent features of the Kalahari Desert is its sand dunes and salt pans, which are the end result of dried-up lakes. The Kalahari also has excellent access to water via the Okavango River, which runs through it. This water access attracts a range of wildlife to the Kalahari, including lions, brown hyenas, meerkats, and a range of birds and reptiles.
- Karoo Desert
The Karoo Desert is known as a semi-desert region of South Africa, characterized by an average precipitation of between 200 and 700 mm. Another defining feature of the Karoo Desert is its extreme temperature range, as it can get really hot and really cold.
The Karoo is split up into two central regions. The first region is the Succulent Karoo Biome, which lies to the west, and the second is the Nama Karoo Biome, which covers the majority of South Africa’s southern interior plateau. As suggested by its name, the Succulent Karoo Biome contains a selection of succulent plants worldwide. This biome is home to around 10,000 succulent species.
There is also underground water running throughout the Karoo Biome, which has been tapped by people living there and used for grazing by sheep and goats.
- Danakil Desert
The fourth African desert in this list is the Danakil Desert, located in the Afar Triangle. This desert spreads across northeastern Ethiopia, the coast of southern Eritrea, and northwestern Djibouti.
This desert is perhaps the most extreme of the African deserts, as it is home to lava lakes, volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, and various multi-colored salt lakes. The Danakil Desert is also extremely dry, with only around 2.5 centimeters of rainfall recorded yearly. What’s more, this desert is one of the hottest places on Earth, with temperatures getting up to 50 °C.
- Chalbi Desert
The Chalbi Desert is situated to the East of Kenya’s Lake Turkana and is one of the hottest and most arid places in the entirety of Kenya. The name of this desert essentially means ‘bare and salty’, which indicates its climate. The Chalbi Desert is an old rover bed that is decorated with a selection of rocks and clay formations.
- Namib Desert
The most distinguishing feature of the Namib Desert is its highly high dunes that stretch to over 300 meters high. These dunes are the highest in the world. The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world, dating back 80 million years ago. This desert spreads along the Atlantic coastal region of Southern Africa, encompassing parts of Angola, Namibia, and South Africa and merging with the Kalahari Desert in the south.
The climate in the Namib Desert is dry due to the dry Namib winds, which combine with the Atlantic’s Benguela current. This combination produces fog, the primary source of water for this African desert and, as such, the life source for most plants and animals.
- Guban Desert
Now we’re getting into the much less well-known of the African deserts. The Guban Desert is a narrow area referred to as ‘burnt land’ that stretches to the most easterly point of the Northern Somalian coast. This desert is hot and dry and is home to a system of sandy seasonal watercourses and steppe vegetation.
- Nyiri Desert
The Nyiri Desert is located south of Kenya, between Amboseli, Tsavo West, and Nairobi National Parks. This desert is in the rain-shadow area of Mount Kilimanjaro, which means that it has been forced to become a desert because the mountain has blocked all plant-growing, rainy weather. The Nyiri Desert is, however, home to several large springs that allow animals like elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, lions, and leopards to live there. These springs also provide water for select types of plants to grow there, such as thorny trees.
- Grand Bara Desert
The Grand Bara Desert is an old dried-up lake bed in southern Djibouti. This desert comprises sand flats broken up by desert grasses and shrubs. Moreover, this desert is flat and infertile, so bushes and trees cannot grow there. However, a select number of large mammals have adapted to live in this region, including dik-diks and oryxes.
- The Lompoul Desert
The Lompoul desert is the smallest desert in Africa and is situated in the northwest region of Senegal between Dakar and Saint-Louis. This desert is surrounded by sizeable orange sand dunes, which tourists travel to see each year.