Distribution and Causes of Deserts

Areas that receive less than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of rain annually are called deserts. Deserts are dry with sparse vegetation. Landforms tend to have angular features because the lack of rain results in minimal chemical weathering, and flash floods create steep‐walled scarps and gullies. There are few plants to protect the soil from the wind, so the soil is blown away to expose the rocky surface. Even in such a dry climate, most of the landforms are carved by the rare periods of heavy rainfall that result in flash floods, erosion, and sediment deposition.

Hot air rises at the equator, where the land receives the greatest amount of the sun's radiation. Most of the world's deserts are located near 30 degrees north latitude and 30 degrees south latitude, where the heated equatorial air begins to descend. The descending air is dense and begins to warm again, evaporating large amounts of water from the land surface. The resulting climate is very dry.

Other deserts are located in the rain shadows of mountain ranges. As moist air passes over a mountain range, it expands and cools, precipitating most of its moisture as it rises. As it sweeps down the other side of the mountain range, it warms and compresses, causing high evaporation rates and shedding little rain. Many of the deserts in the southwestern United States are the result of rain shadows.

A few deserts, such as the Gobi Desert in China, are simply a result of being located far from the ocean, from which most atmospheric moisture is drawn. The moisture is precipitated before it can reach these interior areas.

Deserts can form even on tropical coasts beside cold ocean currents, such as the west coast of South America. The currents cool the air, which then rises and warms as it moves over land, drawing up moisture that is later precipitated as the air moves farther inland.