The desert is a region of extremes: extreme temperatures and extreme beauty. Very few plants and animals inhabit the desert environment. Those that do, such as reptiles and cacti, are highly specialized to survive in the harsh region. Humans have even been able to adapt to the desert. Groups like the Aborigines of Australia and the Tuareg of North Africa have managed to survive in the desert by adopting a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place in search of food and water.
Temperatures in the desert widely fluctuate. It is not uncommon for the temperature in the desert to rise above 90 degrees F during the day and then fall below 32 degrees F at night. This is because of the lack of moisture in the desert. Moisture, in the form of humidity and cloud cover, acts as an insulator and keeps the heat from radiating out into the atmosphere. Deserts have an average temperature of over 64 degrees F throughout the year. The highest shaded temperature on record occurred in the Sahara desert of North Africa, where the temperature reached 136 degrees F.
In general, deserts receive less than 10 inches of rainfall per year. Average rainfall for deserts ranges between .4 to 10 inches. The driest desert on the planet is the Atacama desert in Chile. The average rainfall in the mountain desert is less than .004 inches a year. Some places within the Atacama desert have not had any rainfall in over 400 years.
Types of Deserts
There are several types of deserts throughout the world: hot and dry, semiarid, coastal and cold. Hot and dry deserts are classified by warm temperatures throughout the year, extremely hot summers and little rainfall in the winter months. Semiarid deserts have a long and dry summer with an average rainfall of between .8 to 1.6 inches per year. Coastal deserts are located in mildly cool to warm areas and have cool winters and warm summers. Cold deserts are characterized by cold winters with snowfall and high rainfall throughout the winter and sometimes during the summer as well.
Desertification is the process that occurs when once productive land becomes barren, such as the land found in deserts. This can occur through natural processes like drought and wind erosion or through human actions like deforestation and overgrazing by farm animals. The areas of the world classified as deserts are increasing by 40 square miles a day. The dry areas of North America are some of the regions most affected by desertification, with nearly 90 percent of the areas either moderately or severely affected.
Hazards and Precautions
When visiting the desert, it is very important to be prepared for the weather and climate. While the desert can be an ideal place for outdoor activities, the hot and dry climate can be fatal. Bring plenty of water with you and stay hydrated while in the desert. Never walk barefoot in the desert. The sand traps heat and can reach temperatures high enough to cause second- and third-degree burns to the soles of your feet if not protected. Never stay inside a car alone because the temperatures inside can get so high that you will suffocate. Remove any items from your car that can melt or explode in the high temperatures.