Largest Desert in the World 2024

Planet Earth is uniquely equipped for playing host to all forms of life. With hundreds of prosperous ecosystems, the biodiversity of the Earth is truly remarkable. However, it is also speckled with some brutally harsh environments where only the hardiest species manage to survive. Deserts account for about ⅓ of Earth’s total land area and provide a stark contrast to the bountiful biomes surrounding them.

While the term “desert” is typically associated with dry, hot, and sandy environments, these traits don’t paint the full picture. The definition of desert is, simply, an area of land that receives less than 10 inches of precipitation in a year. This means that deserts can also be cold, so long as they are sufficiently dry.

If we utilize this proper definition, then the world’s largest desert is actually Antarctica. With over 5,405,000 square miles to its name, Antarctica is among the most inhospitable places on Earth. In the continent’s center, the average temperature is -70 degrees Fahrenheit. This rises to a toasty 14 degree average on the coast. Surprisingly, however, fresh snow doesn’t fall in Antarctica very often at all. As a whole, the continent averages less than seven inches of snowfall per year.

The Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world with an area of over 3.3 million square miles. Measuring about the size of China, the Sahara has historically served both as an obstacle and as an integral part of North African culture. The Sahara undergoes a drastic ecological shift every 20,000 years, oscillating between desert and savannah as the Earth’s axis “wobbles” shifting the course of the North African Monsoon. This shift is projected to happen next in about 10,000 years, so the Sahara may not make the list of the world’s largest deserts in 12,020. For now, the desert contains approximately 1.5 septillion (1,504,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) grains of sand and sports dunes up to 1,400 feet tall.

The Great Basin desert in the United States is home to Death Valley, the point with the lowest elevation in all of North America, some 282 feet below sea level. Death Valley holds the world record for the highest temperature ever officially recorded. In 1913, the sweltering ravine recorded a temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit, which the average human could manage for about ten minutes before suffering from a heat stroke.

The Atacama desert is nestled between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean on the coast of Chile. The Atacama has the highest average elevation of any desert, roughly 7,900 feet above sea level. However, despite its proximity to inherent wetness, the Atacama is the driest place on Earth and averages a parched 0.04 inches of precipitation per year. There are parts of the desert where no rain has ever been officially recorded.

The world’s ten largest deserts in square miles:

  • Antarctica (5,405,000) Antarctica
  • Arctic (5,400,000) Asia, Europe, North America
  • Sahara (3,300,000) Africa
  • Australian (1,000,000) Australia
  • Arabian (900,000) Asia
  • Gobi (500,000) Asia
  • Kalahari (360,000) Africa
  • Patagonian (200,000) South America
  • Syrian (200,000) Asia
  • Great Basin (190,000) North America