Atlas of the World's Deserts

By Nathaniel Harris | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

In the Western imagination the word “desert” most often evokes a landscape of endless gigantic sand dunes, dazzling white under a cloudless hot-blue sky and a blazing sun. This landscape of the imagination is likely to be empty-deserted-except, perhaps, for a caravan of nomads and camels that inches slowly across the horizon, or a lone man stumbling, sun-blackened and sun-parched, through the heat haze. Or there may even be an emerald-green oasis, where tents are set out in the shade of a palm grove-though this, of course, may be nothing but a tantalizing mirage. This is the magnificent and exotic landscape of movies such as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990), and of countless adventure stories of intrepid travelers and explorers.

This idealized or classic landscape is not pure fantasy: parts of the Sahara, Arabian, and other deserts fit quite well with this image-though perhaps with less Technicolor vibrancy. The stereotype does, however, contain some misleading notions, of which the most notable is that all deserts are hot, and that heat is crucial in defining what constitutes a desert. Temperature actually plays a secondary role or no role in such definitions-not all deserts are hot, and even so-called hot deserts are not hot all the time. The Gobi Desert deep within Central and East Asia, for example, has relatively cool but erratic temperatures even in summer and can be brutally cold in winter, and in the Sahara temperatures can easily plummet to 4°C (39°F) at night. Modern geographers also recognize the category of the polar desert, applying it to all of Antarctica and parts of the Arctic (notably Greenland), where temperatures day and night stand at the opposite extreme to those of daytime hot deserts.

Even a brief perusal of the photographs included in this book will suggest a much more varied, and even nebulous, notion of what is-or is sometimes-meant by the term “desert.” There are vast gravel plains, gleaming expanses of sun-baked salt, and rugged, eroded landscapes of pinnacles, canyons, and rock arches. There are deserts smothered with flowers and blooming cacti; there are others studded with oil wells or scarred by quarries. Some are washed by the ocean and bathed in fog, and some are ice-encrusted polar wildernesses. One of the surprising facts encountered in this book is that only 20 to 30 percent of the world’s deserts are covered by sand, and that the world’s great deserts in fact encompass a huge variety of terrains, not only relative to each other but sometimes within their own boundaries. There is, moreover, little exotic about the desert biome-almost 20 percent of the earth’s land surface is desert, and there are deserts in almost every continent and at every latitude. Of the continents only Europe has no desert area. For many peoples of the world the desert is not a remote fantasy but a reality that impinges on their everyday lives.

Defining the desert

Definitions of the term “desert” are neither static nor absolute. All over the world the term “desert” and its foreign-language equivalents are culturally and topographically specific. European words such as “desert, ”“desert” and “Wüste” emphasize the sense of abandonment that is the standard Western response to the desert landscape-an idea that is also reflected in the etymology of the name of the Namib Desert in southern Africa-“the place where there is nothing.” Arabic has not one but several words for “desert, ” including erg (applied to large areas of sand or “sand seas”) and hammada (applied to stony plains), as well as the more general sahra, from whose plural form-sahara-the world’s largest desert takes its name. The Turkic kum means literally “sand, ” reflecting the sandy wastes of Central Asia-hence the Kara-Kum, or “Black Sand, ” of Turkmenistan and the Kyzyl-Kum, or “Red Sand, ” of neighboring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan-while the Persian dasht means “plain” as well as “desert, ” in reference to the plateau deserts that dominate central Iran.

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Atlas of the World's Deserts
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Limestone Columns 6
  • Introduction 7
  • Chapter I - How Deserts Form 13
  • The Desert in History 131
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