When looking at world maps it is often easy to notice the Sahara and think that it is the largest desert in the world. It is after all extremely large and arid. But what if you found out that the Sahara isn’t the largest desert in the world? To be even more precise, it’s not even the second largest desert in the world. I bet you’d be surprised and probably in denial. But it’s true, and we will try to explain.
Growing up in school my geography teacher always told us that the Sahara was the biggest. He told us it was so big in fact that it’s larger than Australia, which itself is occupied by a large portion or arid country. But I never checked for myself. Instead I took his word as gospel. How wrong he was.
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Why isn’t the Sahara the largest desert in the world?
To be classified as a desert the region needs to record less than 250 mm of rain per year, or around ten inches. You may also be surprised to learn that a third of the world falls into that classification. That’s not a lot of rain at all, and not much would thrive, let alone survive on such paltry precipitation. But it can in two regions that are classified as deserts, and they are probably the last place yo would have thought to look.
Antarctica is the largest desert in the world with a land area of 14.24 million square kilometers (5.5 million square miles). That’s about thirty percent larger than the Sahara Desert, or 5.1 million square kilometers (2 million square miles). The second biggest is the Arctic which is only just pipped at the post by its polar opposite. It encompasses parts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Both these polar regions get less than 250 millimeters of rain a year, even though they consist of solid water, ice.
But the Sahara still holds the mantel of being the largest non polar, subtropical desert.