When you think about a desert, you probably think about the typical desert depicted on television. You could imagine the sandy and scorching hot desert areas of California and Nevada. In technical terms, there is not just one type of desert. The term referred to different geographical landscapes, and there are four distinct types.
Defining a Desert
Before considering the types of deserts and examples of each, it is important to define what a desert is in the broader meaning of the word. There are so many deserts scattered around the Earth, and they make up a significant portion of the surface, about 20 percent. Deserts are regions of low rainfall, with less than 50cm or 20 inches of rain falling a year. This is the general definition of a desert, and many different landscapes fit into this description. The four main types of deserts are hot and dry deserts, semi-arid deserts, coastal deserts, and cold deserts. These are each looked at briefly below.
Hot and Dry Deserts
These are the most well-known types of deserts. These types of deserts experience very hot temperatures in summer. The winters are also warm and do not experience much rainfall. Examples of hot and dry deserts include Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Mojave, and Great Basin, which are the four major deserts in North America. Other examples are the Australian desert, the Ethiopian desert, and the Neotropical desert in South and Central America.
Temperatures in a hot and dry desert can reach extreme levels in the 43-49 degrees C range. The daily ranges are very high because there is little humidity in these environments to limit heat loss at night. Temperatures can drop to as low as -18 degrees C. These types of deserts often experience long periods of time without rain, followed by shorter periods of concentrated rainfall. Plant life is very limited to short, ground shrubs and small woody trees. Plants are also highly adapted to limit water loss. Animals in these deserts include many species of small nocturnal creatures. There are also several types of reptiles, insects, arachnids, and birds.
The second type of desert to consider is the semiarid desert. In these deserts, summers are long and quite dry. The winters do not bring much rainfall, similar to the hot and dry deserts. Temperatures in the summers usually stay in the 21-27 degrees C range during the day and are around 10 degrees C at night.
Examples of semiarid deserts include the sagebrush in Montana, Utah, and the Great Basin. Outside the U.S., other semiarid deserts are found in the Nearctic realm.
The next type of desert to consider is the coastal desert. Temperatures in these deserts are much cooler and warmer than the hot and dry or semiarid deserts. The Atacama Desert in Chile is one example of a coastal desert. The winters are cool with temperatures usually below 5 degrees C. The summers are warm and moderately long with temperatures usually in the range of 13-24 degrees C.
The fourth type of desert type is the cold desert. This is the most unusual and unconventional type of desert, but with deserts defined in terms of annual rainfall, the classification makes sense. Cold deserts have cold winters with both snowfall and rainfall throughout, and temperatures usually range from -2 to 4 degrees C. The summers are shorts, moderately warm at around 21-26 degrees C, and have occasional rainfall. Examples of cold deserts are the Antarctic, Greenland, and Nearctic realm.
Cold deserts have heavy and salty soil. Plant life varies from 10 percent to as high as 85 percent ground coverage. The most common plants are deciduous plants with spiny leaves. Animals found in these deserts include kangaroo rats and mice, pocket mice, jackrabbits, antelope ground squirrels, badgers, coyotes, lizards, and deer during the winter times.