Covering approximately one-third of our planet’s land surface, deserts are a defining geographical phenomenon. Here we explore the 10 largest deserts in the world, sharing their size, features, location, and the odd useful (and interesting!) fact.
What is a desert?
Deserts are defined as dry regions receiving less than 12 inches of precipitation annually, and are formed when regional climate changes result in long-lasting drought conditions.
With this context in mind let’s look at the 10 largest deserts on the planet, including both hot deserts and cold deserts:
1. Antarctic Desert
- Area (km²): 14,000,000
- Location: Antarctica
The Antarctic Desert is the biggest desert in the world, covering all of the land of Antarctica – the continent located over the South Pole. The area has many more superlatives associated with its name than the largest desert alone. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of all the continents in the world.
Antarctica receives an annual precipitation of just 20 mm, which occurs only along the coastal region. The continent is too cold for rainfall, rather the drops of rain turn into small snowflakes and cover the outer surface of the enormous ice sheets.
2. Arctic Desert
- Area (km²): 13,985,000
- Location: Arctic Ocean islands north of Norway and Russia
The cold Arctic Desert is the second largest desert in the world, located in the northern polar region of Earth. The desert stretches across an area of the Arctic Ocean 2,000 km from east to west and 1,000 km from north to south, covering a number of island groups of the north coast of Norway and Russia.
The Arctic Desert observes very similar environmental features as the Antarctic Desert, though has a slightly higher precipitation rate of 50cm per year – approximately the same amount as the Sahara.
3. Sahara Desert
- Area (km²): 9,200,000
- Location: North Africa
The Sahara or ‘the Greatest Desert’ is the largest hot desert in the world. In our top 10 list, it is the third-largest desert on the planet.
The Sahara Desert is located in the northern part of the African continent. More specifically the Sahara covers parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia. It’s so large that it covers 25% of Africa’s landmass.
The name ‘Sahara’ has come from the Arabic word for ‘desert’, çahra.
Read more about Africa’s deserts.
Discover the best desert safari options.
4. Australian Desert
- Area (km²): 2,700,000
- Location: Australia
The deserts of Australia (including the Great Victoria Desert) combine as the Australian Desert. This fourth largest desert in the world, and the deserts covers approximately 18% of the landmass of the Australian mainland.
Other than Antarctica, Australia is the driest continent in the world. Around 35% of the continent receives so little rain, it is close to being classed as a desert. The interesting point on Australia’s deserts is that in some years they technically exceed the amount of rain threshold to be called a desert as rainfall distribution across the continent is so uneven.
5. The Arabian Desert
- Area (km²): 2,330,000
- Location: Middle East
The Arabian Desert is the fifth-largest desert in the world and the largest in Eurasia. It is located in far Western Eurasia, in the Arabian Peninsula.
At the center of the Arabian Desert in Saudi Arabia, is one of the largest continuous bodies of sand in the world, complete with picture-postcard sand dunes. The place is called the Ar-Rub Al-Khali, also known as ‘The Empty Quarter‘.
6. Gobi Desert
- Area (km²): 1,295,000
- Location: Eastern Asia
The Gobi Desert is a huge desert region located in East Asia, covering large parts of Northern China and Southern Mongolia. It’s the second-largest desert in Asia and the third-largest cold desert on the planet.
The Gobi is what’s called a rain shadow desert – a region that’s been forced to turn into a desert because mountains block all plant-growing, rainy weather. Despite being a desert, the Gobi is famed for its rare animals such as snow leopards and Bactrian camels.
7. Kalahari Desert
- Area (km²): 900,000
- Location: Southern Africa
The Kalahari Desert is the seventh largest desert in the world. It is located in Southern Africa, covering most of Botswana, as well parts of Namibia, and South Africa.
The name of the desert has come from the Tswana word Kgala, meaning “the great thirst”. Simply, its name reflects the natural aspect of the region.
Read about Botswana’s Central Kalahari National Park.
8. Patagonian Desert
- Area (km²): 620,000
- Location: Argentina
The Patagonian Desert or the Patagonian Steppe is the eighth largest desert in the world, and the largest desert in South America.
This entire region is a cold desert scrub steppe, made up of rocky shrubland and thorn thicket and experiencing year-round frosts and constant winds. Despite this, Patagonia is home to an array of wildlife including foxes, llamas, armadillos, and more.
9. Syrian Desert
- Area (km²): 520,000
- Location: Middle East
The Syrian Desert or the Syrian Steppe is a subtropical desert that is the ninth largest desert in the world.
The southern part of the Syrian Desert merges with the larger Arabian Desert. The surface of the desert is bare and rocky, and contains scattered wadis or dry riverbeds.
10. Great Basin
- Area (km²): 492,000
- Location: United States of America
The Great Basin Desert is set in central-west Nevada USA, between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Mountains, and is the tenth-largest desert on the planet.
Along with its natural uniqueness, the desert is also famous for the Great Basin National Park, located in the central part of the desert.
Map of the world’s largest deserts
Frequently asked questions about “world’s largest deserts”
Is the Antarctic a desert?
Yes, the Antarctic meets all of the criteria to be classed as a desert – a cold desert because of its location in the Earth’s southern polar region.
What is the second-largest desert in the world?
The second-largest desert in the world is the Arctic Desert, spread across island archipelagos off the north coast of both Russia and Norway.
Is the Gobi the world’s largest desert?
No, the Gobi is not the world’s largest desert. The Antarctic Desert is the largest desert in the world and the Gobi Desert is ranked as the sixth-largest desert on the planet (and third-largest cold desert).
What is the largest sand desert in the world?
At over 9 million square kilometers in size and covering most of North Africa, the largest sand desert in the world is the Sahara Desert by quite some way.
Where does the word ‘desert’ come from?
The word ‘desert’ comes from the Latin term desertum, which originally meant ‘an abandoned place’.
In the English language, the word was historically used to mean ‘an unpopulated area’, with no specific reference to the features of a desert. e.g. In The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare set a scene in ‘Bohemia. A desert country near the sea’, refering to the sparse population rather than precipitation or of that area. Isn’t that interesting?
The modern usage of desert only fully appeared in our vocabulary in the 21st century. (And, of course, it’s not to be confused with dessert, even though both can give great pleasure!)
And that’s our take on the world’s largest deserts. Have you visited any of these stunning wildernesses? Please do join in and let us know in the comments section below!