Arid area with sparse vegetation (or, in rare cases, almost no vegetation). Soils are poor, and many deserts include areas of shifting sands. Deserts can be either hot or cold. Almost 33% of the Earth's land surface is desert, and this proportion is increasing. Arid land is defined as receiving less than 250 mm/9.75 in rain per year.
The tropical desert
belts of latitudes from 5° to 30° are caused by the descent of air that is heated over the warm land and therefore has lost its moisture. Other natural desert types are the continental deserts
, such as the Gobi, that are too far from the sea to receive any moisture; rain-shadow deserts
, such as California's Death Valley, that lie in the lee of mountain ranges, where the ascending air drops its rain only on the windward slopes; and coastal deserts
, such as the Namib, where cold ocean currents cause local dry air masses to descend. Desert surfaces are usually rocky or gravelly, with only a small proportion being covered with sand (about 3%). Deserts can be created by changes in climate, or by the human-aided process of desertification.
Characteristics common to all deserts include irregular rainfall of less than 250 mm/9.75 in per year, very high evaporation rates of often 20 times the annual precipitation, and low relative humidity and cloud cover. Temperatures are more variable; tropical deserts have a big diurnal temperature range and very high daytime temperatures (58°C/136.4°F has been recorded at Azizia in Libya), whereas mid-latitude deserts have a wide annual range and much lower winter temperatures (in the Mongolian desert the mean temperature is below freezing point for half the year).
Desert soils are infertile, lacking in humus
and generally grey or red in colour. The few plants capable of surviving such conditions are widely spaced, scrubby and often thorny. Long-rooted plants (phreatophytes) such as the date palm and musquite commonly grow along dry stream channels. Salt-loving plants (halophytes
) such as saltbushes grow in areas of highly saline soils and near the edges of playas
(dry saline lakes). Xerophytes
are drought-resistant and survive by remaining leafless during the dry season or by reducing water losses with small waxy leaves. They frequently have shallow and widely branching root systems and store water during the wet season (for example, succulents and cacti with pulpy stems).
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