DESERT, a term somewhat loosely employed to describe those parts of the land surface of the earth which do not produce sufficient vegetation to support a human population. Few areas of large extent in any part of the world are absolutely devoid of vegetation, and the transition from typical desert conditions is often very gradual and ill-defined. (“Desert” comes from Lat. deserere, to abandon; distinguish “desert,” merit, and “dessert,” fruit eaten after dinner, from de and servier, to serve.)
Deserts are conveniently divided into two classes according to the causes which give rise to the desert conditions. In “cold deserts” the want of vegetation is wholly due to the prevailing low temperature, while in “hot deserts” the surface is unproductive because, on account of high temperature and deficient rainfall, evaporation is largely in excess of precipitation. Cold deserts accordingly occur in high latitudes (see Tundra and Polar Regions). Hot desert conditions are primarily found along the tropical belts of high atmospheric pressure in which the conditions of warmth and dryness are most fully realized, and on their equatorial sides, but the zonal arrangement is considerably modified in some regions by the monsoonal influence of elevated land. Thus we have in the northern hemisphere the Sahara desert, the deserts of Arabia, Iran, Turan, Takla Makan and Gobi, and the desert regions of the Great Basin in North America; and in the southern hemisphere the Kalahari desert in Africa, the desert of Australia, and the desert of Atacama in South America. Where the line of elevated land runs east and west, as in Asia, the desert belt tends to be displaced into higher latitudes, and where the line runs north and south, as in Africa, America and Australia, the desert zone is cut through on the windward side of the elevation and the arid conditions intensified on the lee side. Desert conditions also arise from local causes, as in the case of the Indian desert situated in a region inaccessible to either of the two main branches of the south-west monsoon.
Although rivers rising in more favoured regions may traverse deserts on their way to the sea, as in the case of the Nile and the Colorado, the fundamental physical condition of an arid area is that it contributes nothing to the waters of the ocean. The rainfall chiefly occurs in violent cloud-bursts, and the soluble matter in the soil is carried down by intermittent streams to salt lakes around which deposits are formed as evaporation takes place. The land forms of a desert are exceedingly characteristic. Surface erosion is chiefly due to rapid changes of temperature through a wide range, and to the action of wind transferring sand and dust, often in the form of “dunes” resembling the waves of the sea. Dry valleys, narrow and of great depth, with precipitous sides, and ending in “cirques,” are probably formed by the intense action of the occasional cloud-bursts.
When water can be obtained and distributed over an arid region by irrigation, the surface as a rule becomes extremely productive. Natural springs give rise to oases at intervals and make the crossing of large deserts possible. Where a river crosses a desert at a level near that of the general surface, irrigation can be carried on with extremely profitable results, as has been done in the valley of the Nile and in parts of the Great Basin of North America; in cases, however, where the river has cut deeply and flows far below the general surface, irrigation is too expensive. Much has been done in parts of Australia by means of artesian wells.
For a general account of deserts see Professor Johannes Walther, Das Gesetz der Wüstenbildung (Berlin, 1900), in which many references to other original authorities will be found. (H. N. D.)