Deserts cover about one-third of the Earth's surface and occur where rainfall is less than 50 cm/year. Although most deserts, such as the Sahara of North Africa and the deserts of the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and Australia, occur at low latitudes, another kind of desert, cold deserts, occur in the basin and range area of Utah and Nevada and in parts of western Asia.
Most deserts have a considerable amount of specialized vegetation, as well as specialized vertebrate and invertebrate animals.
Soils often have abundant nutrients because they need only water to become very productive and have little or no organic matter. Disturbances are common in the form of occasional fires or cold weather, and sudden, infrequent, but intense rains that cause flooding.
Four types of deserts:
Hot and Dry
The four major North American deserts of this type are the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Mojave and Great Basin. Others outside the U.S. include the Southern Asian realm, Neotropical (South and Central America), Ethiopian (Africa) and Australian.
The seasons are generally warm throughout the year and very hot in the summer. The winters usually bring little rainfall.
The major deserts of this type include the sagebrush of Utah, Montana and Great Basin. They also include the Near-arctic realm (North America, Newfoundland, Greenland, Russia, Europe, and northern Asia).
The summers are moderately long and dry, and like hot deserts, the winters normally bring low concentrations of rainfall. Summer temperatures usually average between 21-27° C. It normally does not go above 38° C and evening temperatures are cool, at around 10° C. Cool nights help both plants and animals by reducing moisture loss from transpiration, sweating and breathing. Furthermore, condensation of dew caused by night cooling may equal or exceed the rainfall received by some deserts. As in the hot desert, rainfall is often very low and/or concentrated. The average rainfall ranges from 2-4 cm annually.
These deserts occur in moderately cool to warm areas such as the Near-arctic and Neotropical realm. A good example is the Atacama of Chile.
The cool winters of coastal deserts are followed by moderately long, warm summers. The average summer temperature ranges from 13-24° C; winter temperatures are 5° C or below. The maximum annual temperature is about 35° C and the minimum is about -4° C. In Chile, the temperature ranges from -2 to 5° C in July and 21-25° C in January.
The average rainfall measures 8-13 cm in many areas. The maximum annual precipitation over a long period of years has been 37 cm with a minimum of 5 cm.
These deserts are characterized by cold winters with snowfall and high overall rainfall throughout the winter and occasionally over the summer. They occur in the Antarctic, Greenland and the Near-arctic realm. They have short, moist, and moderately warm summers with fairly long, cold winters. The mean winter temperature is between -2 to 4° C and the mean summer temperature is between 21-26° C.
The winters receive quite a bit of snow. The mean annual precipitation ranges from 15-26 cm. Annual precipitation has reached a maximum of 46 cm and a minimum of 9 cm. The heaviest rainfall of the spring is usually in April or May. In some areas, rainfall can be heavy in autumn. The soil is heavy, silty, and salty. It contains alluvial fans where the soil is relatively porous and drainage is good so that most of the salt has been leached out.