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The Incredible Sahara Desert

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

There are an astounding 23 deserts in the world and with over 36,000 hours sunshine per year, the Sahara Desert is the world’s most famous and largest low altitude, hot desert.

Sahara Desert
The Sahara Desert, the most famous and largest low altitude hot desert. Photo: Unsplash/Savvas Kalimeris

The Sahara Desert: King of all Deserts

Deserts are landscapes with extremely low moisture or precipitation. Therefore, the land is mostly devoid of any trees and bushes. Even though the environment is so hostile, incredibly, there is an abundance of animals, birds, reptiles, and insects living in it. As you can imagine, the inhabitants of this desert are mainly active at dusk and night when the temperature drops.

The Sahara Desert is in North Africa, situated directly below the Mediterranean Sea, and stretches all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. It covers approximately 30% of the continent; that is, a whopping 3.6 million square miles (about 9.2 million square kilometers)! The Sahel region in the South is found between the Sahara Desert’s expanse and the African Savanna. The huge desert covers eleven countries, including Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia.

Sahara Desert Africa Map
The Sahara Desert is located in North Africa, covers 30% of the continent, and spans across 11 countries. Photo: Wikipedia

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The Sahara’s Unique Characteristics

Normally, the Sahara Desert receives only about 3.9 inches (around 10 centimeters) of precipitation a year everywhere except in the Southern and Northern regions and in mountainous regions. On an average, the desert experiences a temperature of about 86 °F (30 °C). Due to lack of humidity, the temperatures drop dramatically at night and can reach lows of -6°C. Snow falls regularly on several mountain ranges, but nowhere else in the Sahara. The Sahara Desert has many exceedingly specialty features. One of the unique features are the sand dune fields which can rise as high as 600 feet (183 meters) and cover 15% of the Sahara!

Sand dunes are formed when wind deposits sand on top until a small mound starts to form. The mound continues to grow larger as more and more sand is deposited on top of this pile, especially, if there is an obstacle on one side. Then, the edge of the dune collapses under its own weight. There are different types of sand dunes, depending on their characteristic forms. The sand dunes of the Sahara Desert are called Star Dunes, named aptly for their star-like pattern when seen from the top. Star dunes develop where winds come from many different directions, forming pointed ridges on at least three sides.

Sahara Desert Sand Dunes
Sand Dunes of the Sahara Desert Photo: Pixabay

The Sahara is much more than just sand, however – in fact, most of the Sahara is also made up of barren, rocky plateaus, as well as salt flats, mountains, and dry valleys. The rivers and streams found in the Sahara are all seasonal or intermittent, apart from the River Nile. There are over 20 lakes in the Sahara, most of which are saltwater lakes. Lake Chad is the only freshwater lake in the desert.

The highest peak in the Sahara is Emi Koussi (3,415m), a volcano located in Tibesti Mountains, Chad. Other mountain ranges in the area include the Aïr Mountains, Saharan Atlas, Adrar des Iforas, Hoggar Mountains, and the Red Sea hills.

Emi Koussi
Emi Koussi Volcano is the highest peak in the Sahara Photo: Wikipedia

The Sahara’s Wildlife

Some of the vast number of wildlife include cheetahs, jackal, mountain lion, wolf, mice, ostrich, kites, eagles, owl, snakes and a host of insects. As can be expected, the wildlife found in any desert, including the great Sahara Desert, must adapt to a life of extremely low precipitation, scorching hot days, and freezing nights. Animals, insects, and birds get their water supply and food from the special desert plants such as succulent plants, seeds, or the blood and body tissues of their prey. Majority of animals and birds come out at dusk or night to forage for food and water. Plants, on the other hand, have spines which are modified leaves to prevent excessive water loss and their roots dig deep into the soil to get to the source of water. Their thick stems retain water for long periods of time. The Sahara Desert, as well as all the deserts of the world have extraordinary, specialized plants which also produce dazzling array of colorful flowers and fruits. It is hard to imagine that any plant can survive in such harsh climate, let alone in such abundant supply. For instance, a common cactus provides so much of water and nutrition that even humans eat them.

The Addax, one of the most critically endangered species, with only 3 remaining in the wild. Photo: Unsplash/Dusan Veverkolog

Cheetah from Kruger National Park in South Africa. Only 250 left in the wild. Photo: Unsplash/Corentin Marzin

Desert Cactus
Desert Cactus Photo: Pixabay

Did You Know?

There are deserts everywhere in the world except in Europe. About 50 to 100 million years ago, the entire landscape which is now called the Sahara Desert was under water! Then, as the water dried up slowly, the region became totally different with lush, green meadows and a home to a variety of plants and animals. The change came approximately 5000 years ago, due to a gradual change in the tilt of the earth. It is thought that the Sahara Desert will become green again at some point in the future.


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