YOUR WEEKLY DOSE OF WOWZERS AND WONDER FROM THE NATURAL WORLD
Have you ever been lucky enough to take a beach vacation? If you have, chances are you’ve marvelled at the awe and beauty of all that hot, soft sand that just seems to melt under your bare feet.
There’s really nothing better than having the chance to play on a sandy beach under the warm sun, then jumping into the ocean’s waves to cool yourself down.
But imagine experiencing all that sand and a blazing hot sun without a refreshing body of water to jump into. Sounds pretty dry, doesn’t it?
Today we’re exploring one of the driest places on the planet — the world’s largest sandy desert, the Sahara!
Grab your sunglasses, some lightweight layers, and let’s get sandy!
The Sahara desert is home to one of the harshest environments on Earth.
At a whopping 9.4 million square kilometres (3.6 million square miles) in size, it takes up nearly a third of the African continent, an area that’s about the same size as theUnited States, even when including Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands! That’s a big sandbox!
Located in the northern regions of Africa, this colossal desert spans a total of 11 different countries: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia.
The Sahara is probably most famous for the sandy dunes that we often see in movies, but in reality, these dunes actually only account for about 15 percent of the entire desert.
In reality, the desert landscape consists of a wide variety of topographical features which include mountains, plateaus, sand and gravel plains, salt flats, basins and depressions.
We’ll admit that those sandy dunes are visually impressive, however, as they can reach heights of up to 183 metres (600 feet) tall!
Even though the Sahara is defined by it’s arid, harsh environment, many plants and animals call the desert their home.
Approximately 500 species of plants, 70 mammalian species, 90 avian species and 100 reptilian species live in the Sahara. Additionally, several species of scorpions, spiders, and other small arthropods seem to enjoy the desert life.
Perhaps, one of the most iconic desert animals is the camel. You may be surprised to read this, but camels are actually native to North America!
So how did they come to inhabit a place halfway around the world? Well, between 3 and 5 million years ago, they decided to cross the Bering Isthmus, according to a 2015 study in the Research Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Management.
The humps on a camel's back make them uniquely adapted to the desert environment. They store fat which can be used for energy and hydration between meals. This allows a camel to go more than a week without water, and several months without food!
According to a 2019 study published in the journal Science Advances, the Sahara alternates from being a dry, arid desert and lush, green oasis every 20,000 years!
As proof, archaeologists have found prehistoric rock and cave paintings which hint at life in a once-green Sahara. Fragments of pottery, for example, suggest that around 7,000 years ago, herders raised livestock and harvested plants in what is now arid desert.
But for now, the Sahara is hot, and extremely dry. So dry, in fact, that precipitation ranges from a miniscule 0 to 3 inches of rain per year. In some regions of the desert, rain may not fall for several years at a time!
Summer daytime temperatures commonly reach over 38º Celcius (100º Fahrenheit), while nighttime temperatures can drop to near freezing.
This massive swing in temperatures is due to the fact that deserts have very little water vapor in the air. Without the water blanket that moist air provides, warm and cold air can easily escape.
The Sahara is capable of producing massive dust storms which can have an impact on regions in the western hemisphere. The Saharan dust cloud of 2020, nicknamed Godzilla for its immense size and impact, triggered air quality alerts for millions of people in the United States, the Carribean, and South America.
Dust storms are part of a regular meteorological phenomenon that has an impact on our world’s overall climate, and the Sahara is a prime example of just how integrated the various landscapes of our planet truly are.
Even though the Sahara is the largest sandy desert in the world, it is not the largest desert. In fact, it is not even the second largest! Those bragging rights belong to the Antarctic and Arctic Deserts. Kind of crazy to think of a desert being covered in snow and ice, isn’t it?
At 3,415 metres (11,204 feet) tall, the Emi Koussi Volcano is the highest point in the Sahara desert. This shield volcano sits in the Tibesti Mountains of northern Chad.
Did you know that the Sahara desert was used as a location for Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine? Better yet, did you know that his underground home is not just a made up movie concept? Troglodyte homes are actually used by real families in Tunisia’s southern Djebel Dahar region.
Not everything is dry in the Sahara! The desert is actually home to over 20 lakes and over 90 oases!
Learn more about what the Sahara desert was like, when it wasn't a desert at all!