Deserts are most typically associated with soaring temperatures, permanently dry air, and endless rolling sand dunes.
While this is mostly true, this descriptor of the desert doesn’t actually define the “desert climate”.
The desert climate actually refers to a specific type of climate that encompasses more than one weather type.
With the rise of global temperatures since the last decades of the 19th century, it’s becoming increasingly more important to understand what these climates mean and why it will affect us.
That’s right – even if you don’t live in an arid desert-like area, the desert climate is likely to impact your life in the near and distant future.
But how will it affect us, and why is it so important to understand this climate?
Here is everything you need to know about the importance of the weather in a desert climate (see also ‘Everything You Need To Know About The Elements Of Weather And Climate‘).
What Is A Desert Climate?
Also known as an arid climate, the desert climate is a subtype of a dry climate wherein regions receive little to no precipitation or rainfall.
For a region to be classified as a desert climate, the annual rainfall must be less than 9.8 inches, or 25 centimeters.
The desert climate is the second-most common climate type on the planet after the polar climate, covering an expanse of 14.2% of the land.
As a result of the limited rainfall, the desert climate doesn’t receive much of a range of weather types compared to other climates.
However, this doesn’t mean that every desert conforms to the dry and hot climate that is so commonly associated with them.
Not all deserts are hot and dry, which might be confusing to those who only ever associate deserts with cartoon animations and people sweltering in the heat.
There are two main types of desert climate – the hot desert climate and the cold desert climate.
Hot Desert Climate
The world’s hot desert climates belong in the subtropical regions of the planet, including the Arabian Desert, the Great Victoria Desert, the Arizona Desert, and the largest desert on the planet, the Sahara.
These regions are found between 20° and 33° North and South latitudes. As a result, hot desert climates are present in almost every continent, except for Antarctica.
There’s even a desert climate in Europe, with Almería in Southern Spain that lies along the Mediterranean Sea.
The official classification of a hot desert climate is for the arid region to have a minimum annual temperature of 64° Fahrenheit (or 18° Celsius), and an annual rainfall of 7.9 inches (or 200 millimeters) as a maximum.
The reason why regions with a hot desert climate receive such low rainfall is mostly due to the geology of the region.
Sparse vegetation amongst sandy and rocky terrain means that little moisture can be soaked into the terrain and turned into evaporation, which is why these climates are rarely humid.
When the temperatures are particularly hot, the raindrops can even evaporate before they hit the ground, which also contributes to low rainfall.
Keep in mind that this classification is in reference to the average annual temperature and rainfall because the temperatures drop dramatically during winter.
However, during summer, the average temperature of a desert climate in summer is 86° Fahrenheit (30° Celsius).
Not only is a hot desert climate defined by searing temperatures and little rainfall, but it’s also characterized by extreme contrasts in weather.
This is most apparent in the dramatic temperature drop between day and night, wherein temperatures can drop to 40° Fahrenheit (4° Celsius) or lower when the sun sets.
This means that while it is common to experience a fairly warm day in a hot desert climate during winter, the temperature can drop to and below freezing by nightfall.
Cold Desert Climate
On the other end of the spectrum, cold desert climates are found in regions with higher altitudes than hot desert climates.
Cold desert climates can also be found in temperate zones, such as the side of high mountains that faces the direction of the wind.
Some examples of cold desert climate regions include the Patagonian Desert, the Great Basin Desert, the Gobi Desert, and the Karagiye Depression.
Despite common misconceptions about deserts being permanently hot, Antarctica is actually considered the coldest desert in the world.
This is because the average annual precipitation of Antarctica is less than 51 millimeters, which means it comes under the classification of a cold desert climate.
The official characteristics of a cold desert climate are that the arid region must have a yearly rainfall of 7.9 inches (200 millimeters) as a maximum, and an annual temperature of 64° Fahrenheit (18° Celsius) as a maximum.
This differs to the hot desert climates, wherein 64° Fahrenheit is the minimum temperature to classify.
As the characteristics of a cold desert climate suggest, these regions are cold and dry.
While the summer temperature can reach highs of 64° Fahrenheit, the temperature drops at nightfall and even more significantly during winter.
The main difference between hot and cold desert climates is the way the precipitation works.
While rain in hot deserts often evaporates in the heat before it hits the ground, the rain in cold deserts instead freezes midair, landing on the surface in the form of snow.
This is especially true for regions that have an average annual temperature of below freezing.
The Dangers Of Desertification
If you don’t live in or near a hot or cold desert, you might think that these dramatic climates pose no threat to your existence or current climate.
However, what you don’t know about is the dangers of desertification.
Desertification is where habitable and fertile land turns into a desert climate due to a lack of water and excessive heat.
When there is no water, the land cannot be a home for vegetation and wildlife, resulting in an inhospitable environment.
The leading causes of desertification include global warming and the rise of global temperatures, deforestation, and overexploitation such as overusing fertile soil.
These causes are all a result of human activity, which can be avoided.
While it might not look like your immediate climate is turning into a desert, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a cause for concern.
It’s completely normal for natural changes to occur in the climate because this is what results in the formation of rainforests, deserts, swamps, and more over thousands of years.
However, what isn’t normal is the result of desertification.
When desertification occurs, a huge consequence is land degradation, which is where the land is so deteriorated that it cannot be used by humans.
This land is considered worthless, and it is said that up to 75% of the land in the world is degraded, according to the National Geographic.
As a result of the fast changes in the climate in recent decades, the European Commission’s World Atlas of Desertification believes that 90% of the land will be degraded by 2050, and there is virtually nothing to stop this inevitability.
There are countless consequences of desertification and land degradation, almost all of which will eventually impact our everyday lives.
These consequences include:
- A dramatic increase in food prices thanks to scarcity of produce.
- A decrease in available land for agriculture and produce.
- Overpopulation due to people moving away from arid areas to more favorable regions.
- Water shortages in semi-arid urban areas.
- Extreme weather targeting urban areas and metropolises.
- Limited vegetation to act as a natural barrier against large-scale flooding.
The devastating consequences of desertification are simple.
With a rise in global temperatures and the destruction of land, less rainfall will occur, resulting in the rise of inhospitable land.
When the land is inhospitable, this means that vegetation cannot be planted, resulting in a huge loss of food.
Not only this, but the destruction of habitats is detrimental to local ecosystems.
This will result in the extinction of vulnerable species, which ultimately disrupts the food chain that holds the entire planet together.
Without such vegetation and animal species partaking in their natural cycle, the whole system falls apart.
So, while these consequences might not seem like an immediate threat, the reality is that they are already happening.
It’s not enough for us to try and minimize our carbon footprint against the harsh inevitability of climate change, which will eventually impact our everyday lives.
Is Desertification A Result Of Human Activity?
It’s no secret that the world is constantly evolving naturally. Our planet is not the same as it was 5,000 years ago, let alone 1 million years ago.
When you look back to the Sahara desert some 6,000 years ago, the now-barren landscape was once a densely covered grassland filled with vegetation.
It became a dry desert when the axis of the Earth oscillated, resulting in natural desertification and an inhospitable environment for vegetation.
Still, species adapted to live in this new climate.
While the Sahara desert is a good example of natural climate change, we’ve got to remember that this took hundreds of years to change.
Human activity is accelerating the speed of desertification too quickly for the Earth to adapt, resulting in mass loss of vegetation and species.
Deforestation is a huge contributor to desertification.
More than 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil disappear in a year, according to the UN, which is a direct consequence of deforestation.
While the Earth is huge, it will not continue to provide new fertile soil for us to grow food and produce. When we run out of fertile soil, we run out for good.
Deforestation has a direct effect on the weather, resulting in extreme weather such as hurricanes, fires, droughts, and floods.
When the land isn’t prepared to handle such weather activities (which can occur naturally), the new land that we have created cannot adapt to it.
Desertification Vs Desertization
Just to throw another complicated keyword into the mix, there’s a huge difference between desertification and desertization.
Desertification is the construction of desert climates as a direct result of human activity, which works to accelerate the natural formation of deserts.
This speed is alarmingly fast and doesn’t allow time for the planet to adapt to such extreme changes.
Desertization, on the other hand, is the natural occurrence of desert climates.
The Sahara desert is a perfect example of this, wherein it took hundreds (if not thousands) of years for the densely vegetated grassland to become a desert as a result of the Earth’s oscillating axis.
As it took a long time for desertization to come to fruition – not to mention that it was a completely natural result of the planet – the Earth had time to adapt.
The same cannot be said for desertification.
So, there you have it! It’s vital that we understand what the desert climate is and the dangers of desertification in our everyday lives.
Hopefully, this article has highlighted the importance of such inevitable consequences.