The Most Amazing Deserts in Africa

These deserts are characterized by extreme landscapes and geological marvels

Deserts - North Africa
This satellite image of north Africa shows the vastness of the Sahara Desert.

Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

One-third of the vast African continent is covered by deserts. These regions form when regional climate changes result in long-lasting drought conditions. They typically receive less than 12 inches of precipitation per year.

Africa's deserts are home to some of the most extreme landscapes and stark conditions on Earth. From volcanic mountains to sand dunes to chalk-rock formations, the deserts offer a combination of striking beauty and geological wonder.

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert
The sculpted sand dunes of the Sahara Desert. Joe Regan/Moment/Getty Images

With an area of about 3.5 million square miles, the Sahara Desert is the largest hot desert in the world and extends across nearly a dozen countries in north Africa (Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia). The Sahara's geographic borders include the Atlas Mountains and Mediterranean Sea to the north, a transitional region called the Sahel to the south, the Red Sea to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.

The Sahara is not a vast, uniform desert. It has multiple regions, each of which experience varying rainfall, temperatures, soils, flora, and fauna. The terrain, which features volcanic mountains, plains, stony plateaus, oases, basins, and sand dunes, varies across regions.

The large central region of the Sahara is characterized by little rainfall, sand dunes, rock plateaus, gravel plains, salt flats, and dry valleys. The south Saharan steppe region receives more annual rain and can support seasonal grasses and shrubs. Other than the Nile River, rivers and streams of the Sahara appear seasonally. 

The Sahara has one of the harshest environments on the planet, and consequently a small population density. It is estimated that 2.5 million people live within the 3.5 million square miles of the Sahara — less than one person per square mile. Most inhabitants of the region congregate in areas where water and vegetation can be most easily found.

Libyan Desert

Black Desert - Libya
The stony landscape of the Black Desert. Konrad Wothe/LOOK-foto/Getty Images

The Libyan Desert, stretching from Libya through portions of Egypt and northwestern Sudan, constitutes the northeastern region of the Sahara Desert. The extreme climate and absence of rivers in the Libyan Desert makes it one of the driest and most barren deserts in the world.

The enormous, arid desert covers about 420,000 square miles and includes a variety of landscapes. Mountain ranges, sand plains, plateaus, dunes, and oases can be found in various regions of the Libyan Desert. One such region, the Black Desert, contains volcanic fields. The Black Desert's stony landscape is the result of lava flows.

Western Sahara White Desert

White Desert
The chalk-rock formations of the White Desert. Daniela Dirscherl/WaterFrame/Getty Images

The Western Desert of the Sahara is located west of the Nile River and stretches east to the Libyan Desert. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north and Sudan to the south.

Egypt's White Desert, situated within the Western Desert, is home to some of the most unusual formations in Africa: large chalk-rock formations that resemble surreal sculptures. These unique formations were in fact formed by sandstorms and wind erosion. The White Desert was formerly an ancient sea bed; when it dried up, it left behind sedimentary rock layers formed from dead marine plants and animals. Wind swept softer rocks away, leaving behind the harder rock of the plateau.

Namib Desert

Namib Desert
Coastal sand dunes in Namib-Naukluft National Park. David Yarrow Photography/The Image Bank/Getty Images 

The Namib desert stretches along the Atlantic coastal region of southern Africa. Covering an area of over 31,200 square miles, this desert encompasses regions of Namibia, Angola, and South Africa. At its southern region, the Namib merges with the Kalahari desert.

The Namib originated around 80 million years ago and is thought to be the oldest desert in the world. The strong winds of the Namib produce some of the highest sand dunes on the planet, some of which reach over 1,100 feet.

The Namib's climate is extremely arid due to interactions between the dry winds and the Atlantic ocean current. These forces also form a very dense fog that blankets the region. This fog is the main water source for many of the Namib Desert's plants and animals, as the Namib's annual precipitation ranges from eight inches to less than one inch in some especially dry areas. The lack of precipitation means there are very few rivers or streams; the waterways that do appear generally flow underground. 

Namib's Deadvlei

Dead Vlei Namib Desert
The remaining skeletons of trees in the Namib Desert are now black because the intense sun has scorched them. They are believed to have died 600–700 years ago. Nick Brundle Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Located in the central Namib Desert in the Naukluft National Park is an area known as Deadvlei, or dead marsh. This area is a claypan, a geological term meaning a flat depression of compact clay subsoil.

Deadvlei is marked by the remains of ancient dead camel thorn trees believed to have died almost 1,000 years ago. The pan was formed after the flooding of the Tsauchab River, when shallow pools developed and made the area suitable for tree growth. The area became forested, but as the climate changed and enormous dunes formed, the area became choked off from its water source. As a result, the pools dried up and the trees died. Due to the Namib's extremely dry climate, however, the trees could not decompose complete, so they left behind their charred remains in the white claypan.

Kalahari Desert

Kalahari Desert
Hougaard Malan Photography/Gallo Images/Getty Images

The Kalahari Desert covers an area of about 350,000 square miles and encompasses regions of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. Because it receives between 4 and 20 inches of precipitation annually, the Kalahari is considered a semi-arid desert. This rainfall total allows the Kalahari to support vegetation, including grasses, herbs, and trees. 

The climate of the Kalahari varies depending on the region. The south and west regions are semi-arid, while the north and east regions are semi-humid. Great temperature changes occur in the Kalahari, with summer temperatures ranging from 115°F in the day to 70°F at night. Temperatures can dip below freezing in winter. The Kalahari is home to the Okavango River as well as other non-permanent water sources that appear during the rainy season. 

The Kalahari sand dunes are a prominent feature of this desert and are thought to be the longest continuous stretch of sand on the planet. The salt pans, large areas covered with salt left behind by dried-up lakes, are another unique feature. 

Danakil Desert

Danakil Desert
The acid lakes of the Danakil Desert in Ethiopia. Pascal Boegli/Moment/Getty Images

The Danakil Desert has been called one of the lowest and hottest places on earth. Located in southern Eritrea, northeastern Ethiopia, and northwestern Djibouti, this unforgiving desert covers over 136,000 square miles. The Danakil receives less than an inch of precipitation annually with temperatures in excess of 122°F. The main features of this desert are its volcanoes, salt pans, and lava lakes. The Danakil Desert is found within the Danakil Depression, a geological depression formed by the joining of three tectonic plates. The movements of these plates create the region's lava lakes, geysers, hot springs, and cracked landscape.

Key Takeaways

  • Deserts are defined as dry regions receiving less than 12 inches of precipitation annually.
  • Spanning about 3.5 million square miles across North Africa, the Sahara Desert is the world's largest hot desert.
  • The Namib Desert is a coastal desert located along the Atlantic coastal region of southern Africa. It is thought to be the world's oldest desert and has some of the highest sand dunes on the planet.
  • The Kalahari Desert in southern Africa is a semi-arid desert with some regions receiving enough precipitation to support vegetation such as grasses, shrubs, and trees.
  • The Danakil Desert in Ethiopia is one of the most extreme environments in Africa with volcanoes, lava lakes, geysers, and hot springs.

Sources

  • “Dallol Volcano and Hydrothermal Field.” Geology, geology.com/stories/13/dallol/.
  • Gritzner, Jeffrey Allman, and Ronald Francis Peel. “Sahara.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 12 Jan. 2018, www.britannica.com/place/Sahara-desert-Africa.
  • Nag, Oishimaya Sen. “The Deserts Of Africa.” WorldAtlas, 14 June 2017, www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-deserts-of-africa.html.
  • “Namib Desert.” New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Namib_Desert.
  • Silberbauer, George Bertrand, and Richard F. Logan. “Kalahari Desert.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 18 Sept. 2017, www.britannica.com/place/Kalahari-Desert.
  • “Types of Deserts.” USGS Publications Warehouse, U.S. Geological Survey Pacific Northwest Urban Corridor Mapping Project, pubs.usgs.gov/gip/deserts/types/.