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14 Largest Deserts in the World: Listed by Area

What is the largest desert in the world? Here are the largest major deserts of the world, sorted by size. They are from every continent, and both hot and cold deserts.

The largest desert in the world is the Antarctic Desert, followed by the Arctic Desert. These two enormous deserts might not be what we stereotypically think of as deserts, but because of their extreme cold and long dry seasons, they do meet all of the necessary criteria to be so.

largest deserts in the world

The Earth is covered in natural wonders, from the Grand Canyon to the Great Barrier Reef. Few natural phenomena are, however, as paradoxically beautiful as the world’s many deserts. From the freezing deserts of the Arctic to the arid sands of the Sahara, there’s something about deserts that just keeps pulling us back in.

But even among these two freezing deserts, there are plenty of unique features. Enough different kinds of wildlife, geology, and weather can be found between any two given deserts that you might think that they were on entirely different worlds.

Here are the 14 largest deserts in the world by total area.

1: Antarctic Desert (5,482,651 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 5,482,651
  • Square Kilometers: 14,200,000
  • Countries: There are no countries in Antarctica. Seven nations claim parts of it: New Zealand, Australia, France, Norway, the United Kingdom, Chile, and Argentina.
  • Continent: Antarctica
largest desert in the world
View of Antarctic desert from the window of a plane

Fun fact: You could fit all of the deserts on this list between four and fourteen inside the Antarctic Desert. This is because the Antarctic Desert is impossibly large since it is actually an entire desert continent. It is windier, colder, and drier than any other continent on the Earth, including Australia.

It is also the most recently discovered continent, as the earliest any human has ever been recorded as having even seen it is the seventh century when Maori oral tradition dictates that it was discovered by a Hui Te Rangiora.

Europeans would not set eyes on it until the 1880s.

antarctic desert snowmobile
Conditions in the Antarctica Desert require specially modified transportation vehicles. This snowmobile is operated by ALE.

Aside from being way too big, the Antarctic Desert is also home to all sorts of interesting wildlife, from penguins to walruses.

The lifestyles of the creatures living out in this particular desert are unique, as the Antarctic covers such a vast area and has so few resources.

2: Arctic Desert (5,366,828 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 5,366,828
  • Square Kilometers: 13,900,020
  • Countries: Includes parts of eight countries: Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the United States.
  • Continent: It is part of three continents: North America, Europe, Asia
arctic desert norway
Northern lights from the Arctic circle, Norway

Unlike the Antarctic Desert, the Arctic Desert is spread out across three continents. It stretches from Northern Canada and Norway to deep into the frozen wastes of Russia. The Russian Desert (which would’ve come in at number four on this list with around two million square miles of land) is considered to be a part of this desert.

This region is classified as an enormous tundra, meaning that even the warmest month of the year is usually only barely warm enough to thaw the ice.

The characteristic animals of the Arctic Desert are the Ivory Gull, the Polar Bear, and the Arctic Walrus.

3: Sahara Desert (3,522,140 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 3,522,140
  • Square Kilometers: 9,200,000
  • Countries: It includes parts of 11 countries: 11 countries: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia.
  • Continent: Africa
sahara desert
Sahara desert, pictured near Merzouga, Morocco

The Sahara Desert is probably the desert that you think of when you think of the world’s largest desert, and it is the world’s largest hot desert. This sandy beast is two million square miles smaller than the Antarctic Desert—it’s hard to overstate how big 3,552,140 square miles really is.

The Sahara is actually an interesting case, as for thousands of years it has switched back and forth between being a fertile savanna and a dry sand desert due to the changes in the course of the North African typhoons.

The next time the Sahara is expected to switch is 15,000 years from now.

Interesting animals of the Sahara include the Deathstalker Scorpion, the Red-Necked Ostrich, and several different monitor lizard species.

4: Australian Desert (1,042,476 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 1,042,476
  • Square Kilometers: 2,700,000
  • Countries: Australia
  • Continent: Oceania
australian desert road

This is the last desert on this list to be over a million square miles. The Australian Desert covers about 35% of the mainland continent of Australia.

And while the named deserts in Australia only cover 18% of the mainland (see list below), another 17% receives so little rain that it is effectively a desert.

Australia is the driest continent in the world, after Antarctica.

Contained within the Australian Desert is the Great Victorian Desert, the largest single desert region on the continent.

10 Named Australian Deserts

  1. Great Victorian Desert
  2. Great Sandy Desert
  3. Tanami Desert
  4. Simpson Desert
  5. Gibson Desert
  6. Little Sandy Desert
  7. Strzelecki Desert
  8. Sturt Stony Desert
  9. Tirari Desert
  10. Pedirka Desert

Australia is known for its enormous wilderness and strange creatures. Learn more about what kangaroos eat.

5: Arabian Desert (899,618 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 899,618
  • Square Kilometers: 2,323,000
  • Countries: Mostly within Saudi Arabia, but also includes parts of 6 other countries. They include Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, and Yemen.
  • Continent: Asia
arabian desert
The red sands of the Arabian Desert, near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The Arabian Desert is one of the most extreme places in the world, with temperatures that can flip between scorching heat and freezing cold in a matter of hours.

With features that stretch from sand dunes to literal quicksand, it seems like the kind of place nobody would ever want to get lost in.

The animals of the region include spiny-tailed lizards and sand cats.

6: Gobi Desert (500,002 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 500,002
  • Square Kilometers: 1,295,000
  • Countries: China and Mongolia
  • Continent: Asia
gobi desert
Dunhuang, China on the edge of the Gobi Desert

The Gobi desert may only be the sixth-largest desert, but it is the fastest-growing desert on this list, which means that it could very well move up on this list in a couple of hundred years.

Located in Northeastern China, it is shared between the PRC and Mongolia.

7: Kalahari Desert (347,492 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 347,492
  • Square Kilometers: 900,000
  • Countries: Botswana, Namibia and South Africa
  • Continent: Africa

The Kalahari Desert is in South-Central Africa and shouldn’t be confused with other nearby deserts such as the Angola Desert.

Unlike the other deserts on this list, parts of the Kalahari are wet enough to support a large diversity of wildlife.

Learn more about the highest mountains in Africa.

8: Patagonia Desert (259,847 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 259,847
  • Square Kilometers: 673,000
  • Countries: Argentina and Chile
  • Continent: South America
Patagonia Desert

The Patagonia Desert is a cold desert in Argentina. It contains the world’s largest petrified forest at its heart, created when the Andes formed through a series of volcanic eruptions.

Much of Patagonia is covered in steppe land and has been inhabited by nomadic peoples for centuries. There are many arguments as to whether the land should be used for ranching and other animal herding activities in the modern day.

9: Syrian Desert (193,051 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 193,051
  • Square Kilometers: 500,000
  • Countries: Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq
  • Continent: Asia

Much of the Syrian Desert is still inhabited by nomadic Bedouins who use it as rangeland for various livestock.

The desert stretches from Jordan and Syria to Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

It is also known as Badia, the Syrian steppe, or the Jordanian steppe.

10: The Great Basin (190,000 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 190,000
  • Square Kilometers: 492,098
  • Countries: United States (Nevada, Utah, California, Idaho and Oregon)
  • Continent: North America

The Great Basin desert is a desert in the American West that covers areas from California in the west to Utah and Idaho in the east.

Containing a great number of fascinating sub-regions, this desert is defined by its freezing cold winters and blazing hot summers.

11: Chihuahuan Desert (175,000 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 175,000
  • Square Kilometers: 453,247
  • Countries: Mexico and United States
  • Continent: North America

This desert can be found in Northwestern Mexico and the Southwestern United States.

The nearby Sierra Madre Mountains block most incoming rainfall, leading to this desert’s dry climate.

12: Karakum Desert (135,136 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 135,136
  • Square Kilometers: 350,000
  • Countries: Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan
  • Continent: Asia

This central Asian desert covers most of Turkmenistan. This desert is also home to the Darvaza Gas Crater, a natural wonder.

It is also known as Kara-Kum, Karakumy (Russian), Garagum or Gara Gum (meaning “Black Sand” in Turkmen).

13: Colorado Plateau (130,116 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 130,116
  • Square Kilometers: 337,000
  • Countries: United States ( Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico)
  • Continent: North America

The Coloradan Plateau is a high-altitude cold desert that covers parts of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

This Plateau has the greatest number of national parks units in the United States outside of Washington DC, as it contains such famous parks as Zion, Grand Canyon, and Mesa Verde.

14: Sonoran Desert (119,692 Square Miles)

  • Square Miles: 119,162
  • Square Kilometers: 310,000
  • Countries: United States (Arizona and California) and Mexico (Sonora, Baja California, and Baja California Sur)
  • Continent: North America

This subtropical desert is found in North America. It covers parts of Mexico, as well as parts of the states of Arizona and California.

Fun fact about this desert: it is the hottest desert in Mexico.

More reading: Guide to Europe’s Largest Lakes

What is a Desert?

According to National Geographic, deserts are areas that receive very little precipitation. That means that the region receives less than 10 inches (25 cm) of precipitation each year.

While we often think of deserts as hot and dry, this isn’t always the case, as our list reveals. Sometimes they are cold, even remaining below freezing year round.

How Many Deserts are There in the World?

From my research, I’ve identified a total of 60 major deserts in the world. This number increases to 89 deserts if we include the named deserts contained by the larger deserts.

Here’s the breakdown of deserts by continent.

  • Africa: 10 Deserts. The Sahara Desert contains 12 smaller deserts (including Libyan Desert, Atlantic Coastal Desert, and Sinai Desert. And Danakil Desert also contains Eritrean Coastal Desert.
  • Asia: 21 Deserts. The Arabian Desert is made up of 8 smaller deserts.
  • Europe: 5 Deserts
  • North America: 6 Deserts. Some of these (Great Basin Desert and Sonoran Desert) contain a total of 4 smaller deserts.
  • South America: 6 Deserts
  • Australia: 10 Deserts covering 18% of mainland. Another 17% of the continent is an unnamed desert, based on low rainfall.
  • Polar Regions: 2 Deserts (Antarctica and Artic – the two largest deserts in the world). The Antarctic Desert also contains Meyer Desert, located close to the South Pole. The Arctic Desert also contains the North American Desert (including Greenland) and the Russian Arctic).
deserts of the world
Toyota Land Cruiser in Sinai Desert

Keep safe from the strong sun with our picks for the best sun protection hats.

Your Turn

Which deserts are you planning to visit? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments!


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