Skip to content




Deserts (arid or semi-arid) environments are those that lack moisture and do not have sufficient rainfall to support most trees or woody plants. The climate of these areas are extremely dry, with low levels of precipitation and high rates of evaporation. The scarcity of moisture is the main factor limiting biological processes.



Deserts are located between 15 and 30 degrees north and south of the equator.
The largest hot desert in the world is the Sahara in North Africa (pictured above). Other deserts around the world include the Kalahari (Southern Africa), the Atacama (South America), the Gobi (Asia) and the Australian Desert.


The map (above) shows the extent (size) of the Sahara and the image (left) is taken in Libya and demonstrates the vast expanse of sand.



Throughout the year in the desert there are very high temperatures. Average daytime temperature is 30°C with extremes of over 50 °C. However, temperatures can drop at nigh to 0 °C- this is due to the fact that there is no cloud cover and all the heat from the day is lost at night.

Within this biome there is very little rainfall due to constant high pressure. On average deserts receive less than 250mm of rainfall each year.

The constant high pressure is caused by the Hadley Cell. The Hadley cell one of the main reasons for desert locations.


Temperatures at the equator are highest. Warm air rises containing evaporated moisture.
The air cools, condenses and forms clouds.
Heavy equatorial rainfall occurs (in the rainforest!)
The cool, dry air then begins descending. The air warms up. Any moisture in the air is held as water vapour (invisible).
Cloudless sky.
Formation of deserts



Desert soils are grey in colour. They are thin and have little organic matter. Because water is evaporated so quickly, salt builds up on the surface of the soil. Desert soils are not very fertile. Soli in desert regions are called aridisols.

Plants and animals (Flora and fauna)

Because of the very arid conditions found in deserts, both plants and animals have had to adapt to survive. Adaptations include:


Succulents e.g. cacti: Succulents tend to be fairly fat fleshy plants that are able to store water in their leaves, trunks and roots.

Long and wide roots: Plants in deserts have very long roots so that they are able to absorb the maximum amount of rainfall during periods of rainfall. It also makes them more stable in very lose soil.

Spiky and waxy surface: Many plants like cacti protect themselves with spikes and wax so that they are not eaten or damaged by animals.



Deserts don’t have the same variety of animals as tropical rainforests, but many insects, reptiles and mammals have adapted to survive.

Nocturnal: Many animals will hide in burrows or behind rocks and vegetation during the hot daylight hours and only emerge at night.

Camels: Camels store fatty tissue in their humps which when metabolised actually releases water as well fat enabling them to survive in deserts.


Human activity in desert environments – soil erosion and salinisation

There are many issues when humans use deserts and their surrounding areas and soil erosion is one of the main problems. This is a problem which affects many areas. When the soil is left bare, the wind can pick up speed due to the flat land and blow away the unprotected soil.

The effects of drought in Africa

The soil is exposed and vulnerable to erosion as a result of the removal of vegetation and overgrazing.
Trees, which provide protection from the wind and rain, are removed to be used as fuel.
Nomadic tribes have become more sedentary, which puts pressure on the land where they settle.
When soil is blown away the land becomes useless for grazing and crops and causes desertification. This is a problem in the Sahel region of Africa. This problem is worsened when restrictions are placed on the movement of nomadic tribes.



Salinisation occurs when the water in soils evaporates in high temperatures, drawing salts from the soil to the surface. These salts are toxic to many plants and make the land unusable. This has consequences such as low yields, poor profits and even starvation. Irrigation of land – when water is brought to land that is naturally dry – can cause salinisation on desert margins.
It is not just physical geography which is affected when humans use desert environments. Culturally, when tourists and new migrants come in culture may be diluted or new languages picked up.

Population pressures

With a growing population there is more demand for food and water. This puts pressure on fragile and limited resources. Overgrazing and over-cultivation to provide enough food are two problems caused.



Human causes of desertification

Overgrazing: Allowing too much livestock to graze on a piece of land which means all the vegetation is eaten making the ground susceptible to wind and water erosion.
Overcultivation: If you farm land to intensively and don’t have fallow periods then all the nutrients in the soil get used.
Deforestation: Cutting down trees which not only means the land will be receiving less nutrients, but it also means it is more vulnerable to erosion because there is no interception and less stability because the root systems have been removed.
Overpopulation: As the world population continues to grow (now about 7 billion) the demand for agricultural products (crops and meat) is increasing, causing more land to be deforested, overcultivated and overgrazed.
Fertiliser and Pesticide Use: By using fertilisers and pesticides you can artificially increase yields of crops. However, the process is unnatural and prolonged periods of use can all naturally produced nutrients to be used and local water sources to become polluted reducing the ability of land to cultivate crops and therefore making it vulnerable to chemical degradation as well as wind and water erosion.
HYV and GM Crops: Like with fertilisers and pesticides, it is argued that HYV and GM crops have encouraged overcultivation, diminishing natural nutrients in the soil.
Unsustainable Water Use (aquifer depletion, unsustainable irrigation): If aquifers or rivers are used unsustainably then areas can become increasingly arid as water resources are used up. A classic example of unsustainable irrigation happened in the Aral Sea.
Toyotarisation: This is basically the increased use of 4x4s to travel across grasslands, deserts, etc. damaging topsoil and increasing wind and water erosion.

Physical causes

Rising Temperatures: As global temperatures increase it is becoming increasingly hard for vegetation to grow thus reducing vegetation cover and increasing the risk of wind and water erosion.
Falling Rainfall: As the amount of rainfall reduces in some areas like the Sahel, then it is increasingly hard for vegetation to grow again making the ground more vulnerable to wind and water erosion.
Flash floods: Intense periods of rainfall can also cause erosion of topsoil which leads to land degradation.
Wind: If a region is particularly windy then the amount of wind erosion is likely to increase.

The Sahel – Desertification


The Sahel is an area of land south of the Sahara, running from Mauritania in the west, through Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Sudan and across to Ethiopian in the west. The Sahel is roughly 5,400km long and covers an area of about 3 million km2. The Sahel receives between 200mm and 600mm of rain annually. The vegetation is mainly savanna (grassland) with some areas of woodland and shrub land. The people of the Sahel are traditional semi-nomadic herders. In recent years the Sahel has been suffering from increasing soil degradation and desertification.


The main reasons for increasing soil degradation are:
Population Growth (the population of the region is growing at about 3% a year and doubling every 20 years)
Deforestation (much of it caused by people collecting firewood)
Overgrazing (some of this is caused by loss of land to National Parks and tourist developments and commercial farms)
Colonialism – the creation of borders forced people more into villages making them less nomadic and placing greater pressure on the land.
Rising temperatures (greater evaporation) and reduced rainfall (droughts)
Storms – the rainfall that does take place tends to be in shorter more intense storms that can lead to water erosion.


Desertification has caused many problems in the Sahel including:
Desertification is the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas. It is caused primarily by human activities and climatic variations. Desertification does not refer to the expansion of existing deserts. It occurs because dryland ecosystems, which cover over one third of the world’s land area, are extremely vulnerable to over-exploitation and inappropriate land use. Poverty, political instability, deforestation, overgrazing, and bad irrigation practices can all undermine the land’s fertility.

Dust storms
Conflict over diminishing resources

A number of solutions have been suggested to solve the problem of soil degradation and desertification including:
A giant shelter break (the Green Wall) – see article to the right
Population control
Finding alternatives to firewood e.g. solar cookers
Improved farming techniques e.g. reduced grazing numbers

Solutions to desertification

Crop Rotation and Fallow Periods: Growing different crops each year, so different nutrients are used and to allow periods of rest (fallow periods) so that soil can regain its fertility.
Shelter Belts: Shelter belts (sometimes called wind breaks) are areas of forest or hedge that are left untouched to protect farmland from the affects of water and wind erosion. Shelter belts will often appear around the outside of fields.
Reforestation and Afforestation: By reforesting or afforesting areas you can help return land to its natural state, making it more fertile and stable, thus reducing wind and water erosion and ultimately land degradation.
Irrigation: It is possible to water areas of land that have become arid to try and improve the productivity of the soil. However, if water is not used sustainably then irrigation can cause water shortages and land degradation elsewhere.
Grazing Quotas: Placing limits on the number and types of animals that can graze on land, reducing the destruction of vegetation and eventual desertification.
Population Control: The main reason we are putting more pressure on the earth’s resources (including soil) is because the world’s population has reached 7 billion and is still growing rapidly. If we can control population growth then we can limit the amount of agricultural land we need and the intensity of our farming.


Planting crops in Mali

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: