This is one of the most amazing deserts on the planet and it holds a fascinating record!
In this post, you’ll discover the ultimate list of interesting facts about the Sahara Desert!
1. It’s the largest hot desert on the planet
The Sahara Desert is extremely large in the northern part of Africa. It covers an area of 9,200,000 square kilometers (3,600,000 square miles) within the borders of 10 different countries.
These countries include Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia.
The desert has a width of 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) and a length of approximately 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles). This makes it the largest hot desert on the planet because only the cold deserts in the Arctic and Antarctica are larger!
2. Its name is derived from an Arabic word
The name of the desert, “Sahara,” doesn’t contain a lot of mystery. It’s simply a variation of the translation of the Arabic word for desert which is “ṣaḥra.”
Because the Sahara consists of multiple different desert areas, the plural version was used which is “ṣaḥārā,” a word that translates to “deserts.”
3. It covers most parts of North Africa except these 3 areas
Because of the vast size of the desert, it covers most parts of North Africa. It also consists of several distinct ecoregions which each have its own temperature, elevation, rainfall, and soil, resulting in varied fauna and flora.
These ecoregions are the:
- Atlantic coastal desert – A relatively wet area of 39,900 square kilometers (15,400 square miles) in the south of Morocco and Mauritania.
- North Saharan steppe and woodlands – An area with a decent amount of vegetation covering an area of 1,675,300 square kilometers (646,840 square miles) in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.
- Sahara Desert ecoregion – The central part of the desert and the driest region of all which covers an area of 4,639,900 square kilometers (1,791,500 square miles) in Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Sudan.
- South Saharan steppe and woodlands – The southern part of the Sahara which sees seasonal rainfall and which covers an area of 1,101,700 square kilometers (425,400 square miles) in Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Sudan.
- West Saharan montane xeric woodlands – A relatively wet highland that covers an area of 258,100 square kilometers (99,650 square miles), in the Tassili n’Ajjer of Algeria and part of Mauretania.
- Tibesti-Jebel Uweinat montane xeric woodlands – A similar relatively wet highland that covers an area of 82,200 square kilometers (31,700 square miles) in the Tibesti of Chad and Libya, and Jebel Uweinat on the border of Egypt, Libya, and Sudan
- Saharan halophytics – Seasonally flooded saline depressions that are home to salt-adapted vegetation. These cover an area of 54,000 square kilometers (21,000 square miles) in northern Egypt, central Tunisia, Chott Melghir in Algeria, and smaller areas of Algeria, Mauritania, and the southern part of Morocco.
- Tanezrouft – Nothing to see here as there is little to no vegetation and life. This area is situated on the borders of Algeria, Niger, and Mali.
The only regions in North Africa which are excluded from the Sahara Desert are:
- The fertile region near the Mediterranean Sea coast.
- The Atlas Mountain Range of the Maghreb.
- The Nile Valley in Egypt and Sudan.
4. It will stop being a desert again in about 15,000 years
Perhaps one of the most fascinating facts about the Sahara Desert is that this vast region in North Africa wasn’t always a desert. For hundreds of thousands of years, the Sahara has switched from an extremely arid region to being a savannah grassland.
This switch happens in cycles of about 20,000 years and it’s assumed this is caused by the orientation of the axis of the Earth as it rotates around the sun. This changes the location of the North African Monsoon which periodically brings more precipitation to the region, hence it seizes to be a desert.
One study concluded that, for example, Lake Victoria was at its lowest point ever between 14,000 and 18,000 years ago, and even completely dried up during this period, seizing to be the source of the Nile River at that point.
This is a clear sign of the changing dynamics that will eventually turn the hot Sahara Desert back into a savannah grassland about 15,000 years from now.
5. Most of the Sahara isn’t actually covered with sand
When we think of the Sahara, the first images that come to mind are vast areas of sand with maybe some dunes here and there and probably some camels wandering about. Well, most of the Sahara Desert doesn’t actually consist of this type of landscape!
Most of the desert consists of so-called “hamadas,” large areas of rocky plateaus. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any sandy areas, though, but these don’t make up most of the desert.
Other typical landscape features in the desert are dune fields, sand seas, stone plateaus, gravel plains, dry valleys, dry lakes, salt flats, and dunes that can reach a height of up to 180 meters (590 feet).
6. Most parts of the desert hardly see any rainfall
The central part of the Sahara is one of the driest places on the planet, very close to the arid areas of the Atacama Desert in South America.
The utmost northern part of the desert sees most rainfall as precipitation from the Mediterranean Sea sometimes reaches it. In these areas, the annual rainfall can be anywhere between 100 and 250 millimeters (4 and 10 inches).
Most of the Sahara Desert receives less than 20 millimeters (0.8 inches) with the driest places sometimes receiving less than 1 millimeter (0.04 inches), which is pretty much next to nothing!
7. The temperatures in the Sahara can reach excruciating heights
Even though those magnificent dunes look amazing in pictures, the reality is that this is an extremely hot environment that doesn’t allow much life to exist.
The highest average daily temperature recorded in the Sahara was in an Algerian village at an elevation of 378 meters (1,240 feet) above sea level. The temperature reached 47 °C (116.6 °F), which is incredibly hot.
One of the most amazing facts about the Sahara Desert is that only Death Valley in California, one of the hottest places on Earth located in the northern part of the Mojave Desert, has recorded warmer temperatures!
Even more remarkable is that the sand is extremely hot as well, easily reaching an excruciating temperature of over 80 °C (176 °F)! The hottest recorded sand temperature ever in the Sahara was 83.5 °C (182.3 °F) near Port Sudan, not somewhere you want to walk barefoot!
8. Plants have developed a special system to survive in this arid region
Some areas of this desert don’t have any vegetation at all. Especially the Tanezrouft region along the borders of Algeria, Niger, and Mali, is one of the most desolate landscapes on the planet.
Most parts of the desert, however, receive enough precipitation for some sort of vegetation to exist. These plants have developed adaptations to deal with these extremely arid conditions and some of these include acacia trees, palms, succulents, spiny shrubs, and various types of grasses.
Some of these remarkable features are:
- Growing lower so they can avoid strong winds which cause water loss.
- Growing thick stems so they can store water in them and use it in the driest periods.
- Having long roots that travel horizontally so they can find as much surface moisture as possible.
- Having small thick leaves or needles that additionally prevent water loss.
If possible, they find a way to deal with these extremely harsh conditions!
9. An extremely rare big cat lives in the desert
The desert is home to many animals, including several species of foxes, the addax, a type of antelope that has developed a system to deal with dry periods, multiple species of lizards, and Dromedary camels, the most popular desert animal in the world.
One of the most dangerous animals in the Sahara is only about 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) long but is renowned for being extremely poisonous. This animal is called the deathstalker scorpion and it’s best not to come across these at all.
Perhaps the most fascinating animal living in some parts of the desert is one of the biggest cats in the world called the “northwest African cheetah,” one of the cheetahs native to Africa.
Unfortunately, these cheetahs are critically endangered as only about 250 individuals roam around in Algeria, Togo, Niger, Mali, Benin, and Burkina Faso.
10. The desert has been inhabited by people for thousands of years
Apart from a wide variety of animals, parts of the deserts have been inhabited by human beings for thousands of years. A large number of cultures have lived in or on the edges of the desert, most famously the Ancient Egyptians which were preceded by the predynastic Egyptians around 6000 B.C.
The Romans occupied large parts north of the Sahara which they referred to as the “Desertum Africanum,” located south of the Roman province of Africa.
The most important event in the history of the Sahara is the Muslim Conquest of North Africa halfway through the 7th century. After this, most of the desert was heavily influenced by Islamic culture.