Deserts: definitions and characteristics


What makes a desert?


1.     Temperature is occasionally cited in defining deserts, but there are cold deserts as well as hot deserts. Cold deserts, such as the polar regions, high altitude regions, the Great Basin in western North America, the Takla-Makan of the Tibetan plateau (12,000’ elevation) would have to be excluded in a definition that listed high temperatures only.



2. Productivity is sometimes invoked as a definition for deserts

Websters Dictionary– an uncultivated region without inhabitants; a wilderness; a dry, barren, sandy region, naturally incapable of supporting almost any plant or animal life. Synonym – waste. The Middle English root of the word means “forsaken” or “abandoned”.


Biome – one of the major categories of the world’s distinctive plant assemblages; e.g. tundra, tropical rainforest, desert.

          Productivity – Primary productivity is the rate at which energy is stored as organic matter by photosynthesis.

Net primary productivity is the rate at which plants store energy or organic matter, not already used up in respiration. We see it as plant growth, and this is what is available for consumption by heterotrophs.




Ecosystem type

Net primary productivity: g/m2/yr





Trop rainforest



Temperate evergrn forest









Extreme desert



Open ocean



Coral reefs






3. Aridity. The simplest definition holds that a desert is an area receiving an average of ten or fewer inches of precipitation annually. Yet, even this is incomplete. The precipitation an area receives depends upon a number of other factors:

when the precipitation falls,

how much at one time,

what the soil conditions are.


Many factors influence the value plants derive from moisture they receive; hence, these factors are instrumental in determining the type of habitat established.


          a. A gentle soaking rain benefits the vegetation more than a violent cloud burst, which results in rapid runoff and moisture loss.

          b. Several well-spaced showers are more valuable than a single rain, even though the same total precipitation may be produced. This has to do with the phenology of plant development.

          c. Moisture received in summer will be more readily evaporated than that received in cooler weather; conversely, moisture received in hot weather may be greatly needed by the vegetation for surviving that particular stressful period.

          d. Moisture received in winter may be at a time when most plants are dormant and are not taking up the available moisture.

          e. Less than ten inches precipitation on clay soils may be held in the soil for a long time for plants to draw upon; whereas, an excess of ten inches in very sandy, porous soil may quickly vanish to depths beyond where plant roots can reach.

          f. An occasional downpour will not bring an end to desert conditions, although plants and animals will be quick to take advantage of it.  A place in the That Desert of India once received 33.5” of rain in 2 days, but it was a very long time before it rained again. Such water as fall soon disappears and the ground remains dry.


Ten inches or less annual precipitation is an average figure. The erratic nature of precipitation occurrence is a basic characteristic of desert precipitation. Yuma, AZ has experienced extremes of 0.28” of rain to 11.4” or rain one year. It averages about 3.4” of rain annually.

An example of the erratic nature of rainfall in the desert can be seen in Bagdad, CA, in the Mojave Desert, which has an average annual rainfall of 2.25”. Bagdad holds the record for the longest dry period in the United States, undergoing 767 days - from 3 October 1912, to 8 November, 1914 - without precipitation.


Aridity defines a desert, but it would not be so that a desert is a place where it never rains. It occasionally rains in most deserts. What matters is not whether or not it rains, but what happens to the rain as it is falling, and once it reaches the ground.

1. The rate at which liquid evaporates depends upon the number of water molecules in the boundary layer of air.

a. The more water molecules the air contains, the more slowly the liquid will evaporate.

b. It will evaporate faster the fewer the airborne molecules there are.


2. How many water molecules a given volume of air can contain depends on the temperature.

a. The warmer the air mass, the more molecules it can hold.

i. Very warm air, 95F (35C) will be saturated when the saturation vapor pressure reaches 56.2 mb (millibars), meaning water vapor accounts for 5.6% of the total mass of air.

ii. In much cooler air, 14F (-10C), saturation vapor pressure is reached at 2.6 mb, with water vapor accounting for 0.26% of the mass of air.

iii. In other words, a large fall in temperature reduces the water-holding capacity of the air significantly.


3. Relative humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air divided by the amount of water vapor needed to saturate the air at that temperature, multiplied by 100.

a. (Saturation occurs when no other water molecules can join a volume of air).

b. Warm air can hold much more water vapor than cool air; more water vapor is needed to saturate it.

c. The warmer the air, the less likely it is to be saturated and, therefore, the more readily water will evaporate (or vaporize) into it.




Plants take water from the ground and release it as vapor into the air (transpiration). It is difficult to measure transpiration as separate from evaporation, so the two are often combined, as evapotranspiration.

Deserts will form if the amount of rain that falls is less than the amount that evaporates.


Deserts are dry. In particular, their soils are dry. Just how dry depends upon the air temperature, winds, soil type, and the amount of precipitation. A desert climate is one in which more water evaporates from the ground than the ground receives in rain or snow.


Over an extended period of time, the ground cannot lose more water than it receives. Instead of evaporation, what matters is potential evapotranspiration.



1.                           The Actual Evapotranspiration (AET) is the amount of water actually lost from a site.

2.                           Potential Evapotranspiration (PET) is the amount of water that could be lost from a given site, if there was water there to be lost; the maximum amount of water that will evaporate and be transpired if the supply is unlimited is called the potential evapotranspiration.

                                                                         i.      This refers to the evaporative power of the atmosphere.

                                                                       ii.      In a region where water is plentiful, a rainforest, actual evapotranspiration may equal potential evapotranspiration.

                                                                    iii.      In deserts, however, where there is little water there to be lost by evaporation, the actual evapotranspiration is much less than the potential evapotranspiration.. Deserts: AET<PET.

                                                                     iv.      This is close to the rate at which water would evaporate from an open water surface and can be measured by using an evaporation pan. A container of a standard size is placed in the open, exposed to the air, and filled with water. The water depth is measured at the beginning and the end of a convenient period of time – 1 day, 1 week. The rate of evaporation is calculated from the change in depth. In cool, moist climates of northern Europe about 8” of water evaporates in a year. In parts of the Sahara, the PET exceeds 90” a year. This vastly exceeds the annual precipitation of the area, and defines the region as a desert.

If the land is to grow crops, the amount of water supplied by irrigation must exceed the potential evaporation during the growing season.

                                                                       v.      If PET is greater than rainfall, deserts will develop.


3.                           How dry is dry? The difference between AET and PET may be a good measure of aridity.

                                                                          i.      With the PET/P ratio, an area greater than 3.0 is said to be semiarid.

                                                                        ii.      Parts of the Sonoran Desert register a 4.3 ratio.

                                                                      iii.      The area around Yuma, AZ has a PET/P ratio of 30.

                                                                     iv.      The interior of the Sahara Desert is a whopping 600!


4.                          The temperatures that matter most to living organisms in the desert is the temperature at ground level, and in the middle of the day the temp at ground level is considerably hotter than the surrounding air. In the Sahara, sand and rock can reach temperatures of 170F.


It is more than the lack of water that is involved in producing a desert. In fact, it is more than a lack of water that is involved in producing a lack of water.

          1. Temperature plays a vital role.

                   a. High temperatures compound the effects or water shortages. High temperatures increase the evapotranspiration rates which, in turn, increases aridity.

                   b. The high temperature record for the western hemisphere is 134F on July 10, 1913, in Death Valley, CA. This temperature is exceeded by only one world record - 136.4F - reported in 1922 at El Azizia, Libya. Just as precipitation extremes play an important role in the survival of living things in the desert, so also are temperature extremes important in structuring the biotic communities of the desert. High summer maximums are often sustained over long periods in southwestern deserts - Forrest Shreve, one of the foremost early desert ecologists, noted that periods of 90 consecutive days with a maximum of at least 100F are not exceptional for portions of the Sonoran Desert.


2.     Aridity contributes to intense daytime heat.


a.      There is little atmospheric moisture to absorb or deflect sun's rays.

b.     Much radiation reaches the desert surface and warms it during the day

c.     At night, heat is released into space as the surface emits infrared radiation that escapes unhindered through the dry atmosphere. This results in large diurnal fluctuations in temperature. Dry Tonopah, NV has a July diurnal fluctuation of 34 F; humid Dayton, OH has the same mean temperature, but with a diurnal fluctuation of only 21 F.

d.     Aridity and heat are closely related and positively feed back on each other. 

i.                   Heat increases evapotranspiration, and this promotes aridity.

ii.                 Aridity promotes increased penetrations of solar radiation and high surface heating.



3. Temperature fluctuations

1.                           Lack of moisture results in low relative humidity and the formation of only limited cloud cover.

                                                                          i.      A very high percentage of possible sunlight is therefore received.

                                                                        ii.      With little water vapor in the air, and little cloud cover or plant growth to deflect the sun’s rays, approx. 90% of the solar radiation possible reaches the ground surface and lower air layer in the desert, resulting in high air and ground-surface temperatures.

                                                                      iii.      (Temperatures at the ground surface in sunlight often range 30-50F higher than the accompanying official air temperatures taken under standardized conditions).

                                                                     iv.      Humid areas receive about 40% of the solar radiation possible, 60% being deflected before it reaches the ground and lower air levels.

2.                           After sundown in deserts, heat is rapidly radiated back toward the sky, with about 90% escaping unimpeded.

                                                                          i.      In moister climates, the heat gained at lower levels during the day is less easily lost, with approx. 50% of it escaping, and the remainder being deflected downward and held by growth as well as by clouds, water, and dust in the air.

                                                                        ii.      In moister climates, then, temperatures fluctuate only moderately from day to night.

                                                                      iii.      In desert environments the range between daytime highs and nighttime lows is extreme. The difference may be 50 degrees or more.



4. Winds are frequent in the desert. Caused by:

a.      General atmospheric patterns

b.     Local topography

c.     Rapid heating and cooling of the air near the ground surface.

Due to their frequency and the air they circulate - often hot and dry - winds constitute a powerful evaporative force as they sweep across the soil and over living things in their path.

a.      They also contribute greatly to the erosion (deflation) of the soil surface.

b.     The dust and sand they carry often act as agents of abrasion, sandblasting rocks and plants.

c.     Agents of deposition, moving loose material – soil, dust, sand, dead plants – form one site to another.

Because of openness of the land, wind moves relatively unimpeded.

Dust devils, or whirling winds - rotating air currents occasionally as much as several hundred feet in height, and carrying dust, sand, and debris - are common occurrences on hot, still days.

a.                           They are caused when extreme heating of the ground surface results in columns of upflowing air. Surrounding air rushes into this vacuum and diverts to one side or the other of the rising air, causing a strong, uprising, whirling column.

b.                          Unlike tornadoes, they rotate upward from the ground surface.


5. Water erosion – one of the most important erosional factors in the desert is not wind, but water.

1.                           Precipitation is often received thru violent cloudbursts accompanied by rapid runoff.

2.                           Even when precipitation is received in a less violent manner, absorption may still be impeded, for much of the desert surface is rock or gravel, or exhibits other factors of a low or non-absorptive character.

3.                           In North America, geologically young deserts have many rocky, low, but precipitous mountain ranges, which often receive much of the desert’s precipitation, but down which much of this water rapidly flows.

4.                           In deserts, ground surfaces, more bare than vegetatively covered, lies vulnerable to these occasional but highly destructive water forces.

5.                           Bajada – the material carried in the rapid runoff from mountainous escarpments, is dropped and spread out in a fan shape, graded from heavier material higher up the slope to the lightest at bottom. A number of these contiguous alluvial fans, which eventually coalesce with one another, is known as a bajada.

6.                           Washes, arroyos, wadis – are normally dry streambeds occasionally carrying heavy, brief streamflow, which drain towards the basin centers, some of which are known as sinks.

7.                           Many of these basins or sinks are undrained, so that water from a storm not otherwise absorbed into the ground or evaporated before reaching the low point of the basin collects in an ephemeral lake from which it eventually evaporates, leaving behind the minerals carried in suspension. On these playas or dry lakes, the buildup of minerals may be extreme, inhibiting plant growth or supporting a special vegetative community of plants known as halophytes (salt tolerant plants).




Dry washes, a dominant feature of the desert landscape, are readily visible on the open, sparsely vegetated surface. As recipients of runoff, their borders support a heavier, more extensive vegetation than that of the surrounding area. The wash or stream margins may be marked by the heavy growth of large cottonwoods, mesquites, willows, and other species of plants where receipt of sufficient water makes this possible.


The desert is not easily defined, but certain characteristics can be listed:

1.     low and irregular patterns of precipitation (aridity), frequently resulting in drought during summer months.

2.     prolonged high temperatures: both air and soil.

3.     high evaporation rates from soil surfaces.

4.     extreme temperature fluctuations.

5.     low relative humidity, high PET.

6.     high solar irradiance, often with cloudless conditions.

a.      mean annual cloud cover in the Sahara is <10%.

b.     coupled with low RH: dry air transmits light and heat more effectively).

7.     soil high in minerals, and low in humus

8.     extreme erosion of the ground surface by wind and water.


Such conditions exert a profound influence on those living things – plant, animal, human – that make the desert their home.



These features force perennial plants to survive in soils with limited available moisture, which thereby limits photosynthesis and productivity, and can place plant organs under lethal daytime thermal conditions if they do not have adaptations for coping with high temperatures.


Precipitation: 3 categories of precipitation with respect to deserts.

1.     Extremely arid - < 70 mm (< 3”) per year: Sahara, Atacama, Namib.

2.     Arid (typical) – 70-150 mm per year (3-6”): Mojave

3.     Semi-arid – 150-300 mm per year (6-12”): Sonoran, Chihuahuan.

4.     > 500 mm per year can still be considered desert if the rain comes in a very restricted time frame. Single rainstorms can exceed annual averages, as in January 1995 in Las Vegas: 100 mm of rain in one day (year is 100-200 mm: 4-8”). Areas with deep extensive gravels may also “lose” functional water o deep subterranean aquifers. “Functional” means not available to organisms.

5.     Fog is important to both the Atacama (0.04”/yr) and Namib Deserts (<2”/yr).


Polar Deserts

A hot climate and low rainfall will produce a desert, but how does an extremely cold climate do this? Answer lies in the temperature of the air and the moisture it can hold.

1. Air moving toward the polar regions travels at high altitude, where the air temperature is very low.  Because it is so cold, its water vapor condenses and falls as precipitation in the course of its journey.  By the time the air reaches the polar regions, where it descends to surface level, it is very dry.

2. Cold temperature because:

          a. Astronomical: Antarctica receives only diffuse sunlight; even in summer the sun doesn’t rise high above the horizon. Summer is nearly constant daylight; winter nearly constant darkness. Any warmth absorbed during long summer days is quickly lost during ling winter nights.

          b. When dun does shine, most of its light and heat are reflected. The reflectivity of a surface is called its albedo. Freshly fallen snow has an albedo of 75-95% (the proportion of radiation it reflects). Dry sand has a fairly substantial albedo, but of only 35-45%. A field of grass has an albedo or 10%.

          c. Antarctica is also a high continent, averaging about 8,000’ above sea level. The height of its surface makes the climate even colder because air temperature decreases with height. The actual surface on the continent is colder (and higher), because of the ice.



Plants are widely spaced because of lack of moisture.

1.     Some areas may be totally without vegetation.

2.     Much of the desert surface lies exposed, subject to erosion by wind and water.

3.     Paucity of vegetation results in soil low in humus (organic part of the soil).

4.     Desert soils have acquired large amounts of sodium and potassium salts as well as other water soluble minerals due to the high rates of mineralization in these areas.

5.     In more moist regions, minerals tend to be leached downward thru the soil as abundant moisture soaks thru it.

6.     Water in the desert is insufficient to soak the soil to any great depth; there, minerals in suspension may even be sucked upwards thru the soil by capillary action and pulled to the surface to be deposited as the moisture carrying them is evaporated.



Soils and Surface Materials – soils result from the weathering of rock; i.e form the action of sun, wind, and water.


1.     Aridisols (arid soils)

a.      High pH (alkaline)

b.     Generally less well-developed than soils of adjacent lands. Little soil profile.

c.     Lack of organic matter, including humus (nutrient holding organic residue that coats soil particles and reduces soil compaction). <1%  soil organic matter (SOL). Moisture and nutrient retention is therefore diminished.

d.     Few nutrients are lost through leaching because of few precipitation events.

e.      Accumulation of salts because of low penetration of precipitation and high evaporation. (High salts may inhibit plant growth).

f.       Caliche, an accumulation of calcium carbonate into rock-hard, water-impermeable, root-limiting layer. Can promote surface run-off of water, that otherwise might hydrate a parched soil. Occurs where evaporation exceeds precipitation (in areas with a carbonate substrate/parent rock material: limestone).




2.     Winds modify soil.

a.      Due to limited cover of protecting vegetation, dry clay and silt particles are easily eroded from the soil surface. Sands may also move. What is left behind is often a surface layer of closely knitted stones, called desert pavement.

1.     Desert pavement may protect underlying soil from further erosion.

2.     Desert pavement may also prevent dispersed seeds from reaching soil beneath, and may therefore limit seed germination and establishment.

3.     Desert pavement may inhibit rain penetration into the soil depths, leading to water (sheet) run-off.

3.      Cryptogamic crusts – interlacing web of lichens, mosses, cyanobacterial filaments that hold soil particles in place, and fix nitrogen.

4.     Despite severe moisture deficits, water is an important geomorphological agent in desert regions.

a.      Water moves soil and rocks (alluvium) down mountain slopes towards washes and playas, creating what we call bajadas or alluvial fans.

b.     Thermal expansion of moisture trapped in rocks may cause disintegration, and even in hot deserts rock, shattering can occur when surfaces moistened with dew freeze in the clear night air.

c.     Rain splash and sheet wash cause pronounced erosion during periods of heavy rainfall because there is little vegetation to protect the surface.

d.       Desert Varnish - the thin patina of lacquer which covers many rock outcrops. This coating tends to be dark red to black in color, and is composed largely of iron and manganese oxides with silica. Capillary rise of salts under influence of high evaporation may play a major role in its development. The varnish can develop in 25 years in the Mojave and the American southwest, but generally it is believed the varnish develops more slowly.


Playas – undrained basins at base of bajadas. Run-off from bajadas carries fine-textured soil and dissolved salts to playas.

Increase in salinity

Decrease in soil aeration (fine textured soil)

Decrease in soil oxygen (inhibits colonization by plants)


Subject to cold-air drainage. Cold air at night sinks and collects in the playa. Playas may be colder than the surrounding and higher bajadas.