What (and Where) Are Cold Deserts?

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Vast stretches of sand with cacti dotting the horizon or staggering dunes glowing gold at sunset are probably the first images that come to mind when you think of a desert. It’s easy to assume deserts only exist near the equator. However, many of Earth’s deserts, including its two largest ones, are nowhere near the equator, and rarely reach temperatures above freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) during winter. These deserts are known as cold deserts, and you can find them on every continent except Australia.

Deserts Defined

Landscape view of sand dunes and a dirt road with the sun beaming down on a hot day.
Credit: Fares Nimri/ Unsplash

Most scientists define deserts as areas that receive no more than 10 inches of annual precipitation in the form of rain, snow, fog, or ice crystals. In a desert, most of the moisture caused by precipitation evaporates — sometimes before it even hits the ground. Cold deserts, commonly called cold winter or temperate deserts, are deserts that get warm or hot for a few short summer months but experience long, cold winters with temperatures hovering around freezing. Most cold desert precipitation falls during winter. Here are 10 of the world’s largest polar (cold year-round) and cold winter deserts.

Columbia Basin Plateau Desert, United States

River winding through Columbia Basin Plateau Desert.
Credit: Jeff Zenner Photography/ Shutterstock

The Columbia Basin Plateau Desert is located within the greater Columbia River Basin in the Pacific Northwest. The 32,000-square-mile cold winter desert covers Washington's southeastern quadrant and stretches into Oregon and Idaho. The Columbia Basin Plateau Desert is considered a rain shadow desert, which occurs when mountain ranges prevent moisture-laden air from the ocean from reaching the area beyond the range. Air flowing from the Pacific Ocean loses its moisture as it sweeps across the Cascade Mountains, causing only dry air to descend upon southeastern Washington. Parts of the basin receive less than 10 inches of precipitation per year. Winter temperatures range from about 0 degrees Fahrenheit to the upper 30s. The Columbia River and its tributaries drain the region, and the Columbia River pours more water into the Pacific than any other river in North or South America.

Taklamakan Desert, China

Kumtag Desert, a section of the wider Taklamakan Desert, and part of the Tarim Basin.
Credit: Sirio Carnevalino/ Shutterstock

Located in western China, this roughly 125,000-square-mile cold desert also qualifies as a rain shadow desert. The mighty Himalayan and Kunlun Mountains, the Pamirs, and the Tien Shan mountains encircle the desert. The Taklamakan Desert is China’s largest desert — and one of the world’s largest shifting sand dune deserts, with dunes ranging in height from about 60 to 300 feet tall. In winter, frigid air masses drift down from Siberia and drive temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, yet summer temperatures can reach 100 degrees. The Taklamakan is a very arid desert, with annual precipitation as low as one to four inches. The ancient Silk Road, a treacherous, challenging trade route that once connected parts of China with central Asian and Western nations, skirted both its northern and southern perimeters.

Kyzylkum Desert, Middle East

Sand-covered road in Kyzylkum Desert, located in Central Asia.
Credit: Kirill Skorobogatko/ Shutterstock

The Kyzylkum Desert stretches for 115,000 square miles between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, primarily within Uzbekistan's political boundaries. Kyzylkum means “red sand” in local Turkic languages, a nod to the desert’s reddish dunes. Summer temperatures can reach as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit, but winters are long and cold with temperatures between 0 and 40 degrees. Rainfall averages four to eight inches, mostly during winter and spring. Kyzylkum also happens to contain one of the world’s largest manmade lakes, Aydar Lake. The lake was formed accidentally during the 1960s, when Soviet officials dammed the Syr Darya river and released massive amounts of water during a flood.

Colorado Plateau Desert, United States

Snow dots on a red rock plateau that leads down to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
Credit: Ann Newman/ Shutterstock

Roughly centered in the Four Corners region of the western United States (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah), the 130,000-square-mile Colorado Plateau is the country’s second-largest cold winter desert. Its boundaries include mountain ranges, high plateaus, and the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. Due to chilly winter temperatures and the rain shadow effect from surrounding mountains, the Colorado Plateau Desert feels cold for most of the year. The desert’s biggest claim to fame is housing the Grand Canyon, plus eight other popular national parks and monuments. The plateau is not all arid desert land, however — scattered forests break up desert regions, and the 1,450-mile Colorado River flows through it.

Karakum Desert, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan, Central Asia after sunset.
Credit: Thiago B Trevisan/ Shutterstock

Meaning “black sand” in local Turkic languages, the 135,000-square-mile Karakum Desert covers most of Turkmenistan and part of Uzbekistan. Rugged plains are separated by dunes and sand ridges towering 250 to 300 feet tall. Although the Karakum is a cold desert, one area remains hot year-round. Visitors come to see the Darvas gas crater, which has nicknames such as the “Door to Hell” and “Gates of Hell.” In 1971, when the region was under Soviet rule, geologists drilled holes to look for oil but found a massive natural gas pocket instead. The drilling site collapsed and created a 230-foot-wide, 65-foot-deep crater, triggering nearby areas to collapse. Scientists lit the giant pit on fire to burn off the harmful gas, assuming it would burn out in a few weeks — it’s still burning today, 50 years later.

Great Basin Desert, United States

The Great Basin Desert in Nevada during the Winter.
Credit: N Mrtgh/ Shutterstock

The United States’ largest desert covers most of Nevada and parts of eastern California, southern Idaho, southern Oregon, and western Utah. The 190,000-square-mile desert is part of the larger Great Basin wedged between the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges along the western edge and the Wasatch Mountains and Colorado Plateau to the east. The western mountains cast a rain shadow over the region, reducing annual precipitation (mostly snow) to as little as nine inches. Due to its high elevation and northern location, the desert experiences hot summers and cold winters, making it a temperate (cold) desert. The Great Basin Desert has a varied topography, featuring more than 30 mountain peaks jutting above 9,800 feet, salt flats such as Bonneville and Lahontan, the Great Salt Lake, broad high-elevation valleys, and forests.

Patagonian Desert, Argentina and Chile

A truck traveling on National Route 237, with snowy mountains in the background in Argentina.
Credit: MarcosMartinezSanchez/ iStock

At about 260,000 square miles, the Patagonian Desert is the world’s eighth-largest desert. Located in Argentina and Chile and bounded by the towering Andes Mountains to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Patagonian Desert is also known as the Patagonia Steppe. Dry, grassy plains intermingled with rocky foothills, valleys, and canyons make up the area’s topography. Despite its proximity to the ocean, the desert lies beneath a rain shadow from its mountainous western border and receives only about five to eight inches of annual precipitation. Expect seven months of winter with temperatures averaging about 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and summers reaching about 54 degrees. If you visit, be sure to check out the otherworldly Patagonia National Park and Perito Moreno National Park.

Gobi Desert, China and Mongolia

Camels walking through Gobi Desert with big sand mountains covered with snow next to them.
Credit: Sutthi Chuvichit/ Shutterstock

The Gobi Desert features extreme temperatures, with winter temperatures falling to -40 degrees Fahrenheit and summer highs reaching 113 degrees. Precipitation is minimal, with two to eight inches annually, and northerly winds buffet the region almost year-round. Some sand dunes exist, but the desert terrain is mostly hard-packed rock, making it easier to travel across than soft sand. As a result, the historic Silk Road once ran along the desert’s southern edge. Despite harsh conditions, many animals live in the Gobi Desert, including critically endangered wild Bactrian camels. Bactrian camels have two humps, unlike their Arabian one-hump relatives, and they grow thick, shaggy winter coats, which they then shed in summer.

Arctic Polar Desert, North Pole

Ice cold desert on a Winter's day in the North Pole.
Credit: aleksander hunta/ Shutterstock

You might be wondering how a vast area covered in ice and snow can be considered a desert, but the Arctic Desert qualifies as a polar desert, receiving less than 10 inches of annual precipitation. Despite being surrounded by the Arctic Ocean, the frigid air in the area cannot hold onto moisture, so the air is as dry as that of a typical hot desert. Covering a 5.4-million-square-mile area that includes the North Pole, the Arctic Polar Desert is technically the world’s second-largest desert, though some measurements only include Arctic islands and define it as being much smaller. The desert experiences very short summers and long, cold, dark winters, with temperatures rarely reaching above freezing. Mosses, lichens, sedges, and small shrubs cover small areas of the desert. Polar bears, arctic foxes, snowy owls, walruses, caribou, seals, and whales are its best-known inhabitants.

Antarctic Polar Desert, Antarctica

An Antarctic landscape showing ice and a snow desert with snowy hills on a frozen plain.
Credit: Yegor Larin/ Shutterstock

The Antarctic Polar Desert ranks as the world’s largest desert at 5.5 million square miles — and also as the world’s coldest desert, with winter temperatures as low as -128 degrees Fahrenheit. With less than half an inch of annual precipitation, the Antarctic Polar Desert is one of the world’s driest deserts, too. Scientists believe some of the inland valleys haven’t received precipitation in millions of years! This barren desert, which includes the South Pole, is home to Don Juan Pond, one of the world’s saltiest lakes. Due to its high salinity, the pond won’t freeze even at -58 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists have been studying the shallow pond to look for clues about finding water on Mars. The desert’s sole inhabitants are penguins, seals, seabirds, and killer whales. Antarctica is the only continent with no indigenous human population; its residents are researchers and scientists who live here at scientific facilities, mainly during the short summer.

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