Introduction To The Sahara
The Sahara Desert has a surface area of approximately 3, 320, 000 square miles (8.6million square kilometers) making it the world’s largest hot desert with one of the harshest environments on earth. The desert covers nearly 10% of the African continent. Many people believe it is the largest desert found on the planet, however, it is only the largest when compared to other hot deserts. In reality, it is actually the third largest desert in the world after Antarctica and the Arctic, which are both classified as cold (arctic) deserts.
Geography Of The Sahara Desert
It is located in the northern part of Africa and some of the major cities that are within the vast desert are Faya-Largeau in Chad, Agadez in Niger, Timbuktu in Mali, El Oued, Ghardaia, Hassi Messaud, Bechar, Ouargla and Tamanrasset in Algeria, Nouakchott in Mauritania, Tripoli in Libya, and Cairo in Egypt.
On the western side of the Sahara desert, you will find the Atlantic Ocean and in the north you will find the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlas mountains. In the south, the desert ends at the Sahel and in the east it is bordered by the Red Sea.
The volcano Emi Koussi in the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad is the highest peak in the desert. The lowest point is in Egypt’s Qattara Depression. Some of the other mountains found in the desert include the Red Sea Hills, Adrar des iforas, Saharan Atlas, Hoggar Mountains, and the Air Mountains.
Most people think that the Sahara desert is covered in sand dunes but this is not entirely true, only 25% is covered with sand dunes. As a matter of fact, a larger portion of the desert is made up of hard, rocky plateaus with very little sand. You’d think that just because the Sahara is a desert there are no streams or rivers, but the Nile River crosses the desert and empties in the Mediterranean. Additionally, there are seasonal rivers and streams and a number of oases.
Climate Of The Sahara Desert
The Sahara desert is undeniably one of the hottest places in the world but for the last few hundred thousand years, it has undergone a lot of climatic changes. There are two types of climate in the Sahara: a dry tropical climate in the south and a dry subtropical climate in the north.
The dry subtropical climate is characterized by mild dry winters and a hot dry season after variable summer rains. There are also hot summers and cold to cool winters. Daily temperatures in the region are usually around 36 degrees Fahrenheit, but winters are cool in the central parts and cold in the northern part.
Summers are very hot. Rainfall is variable and averages around 76mm per year. It usually rains from December to March and again in August. The rains in August are characterized by thunderstorms which can cause tremendous flash floods. Sometimes the snow falls over the northern plateaus. You can also expect dust winds at various times of the year.
Now that we have covered the dry subtropical climate, let’s take a look at the dry tropical climate. The daily temperatures in this area are approximately 31.5 degrees F. Temperatures in early summer and late spring are very hot and can reach a high of 122 degrees F. Just like in the subtropical climate, the dry tropical climate is characterized by rainfall accompanied by thunderstorms.
Plants And Animals Of The Sahara
Sahara Desert Animals
Thousands of years ago the desert had enough water to support animals and people. Scientists have also discovered fossils of dinosaurs including Ouranosaurus, Jobaria, and Afrovenator.
Some interesting prehistoric paintings also indicate that there might have been lions, elephants, cattle and giraffes that once lived in the desert. Unfortunately, climatic changes which have occurred in the desert have probably made some of these animals to migrate to more comfortable environments or have made them extinct.
There is very little vegetation or water to sustain life in most parts of the desert with the exception of the northern highlands where Olives are grown.
The most common animal found in the Sahara is the camel which is believed to have been introduced around 200AD. Before then, the people there used horses but they quickly found out that the camel was better adapted to the environment. The camel can go up to 17 days without food or water and it can move much faster thanks to its soft feet.
Other animals you can expect to find there include scorpions, snakes, and rodents. The death stalker scorpion is four inches long and its venom contains large amounts of scyllatoxin and agitoxin. There are over 40 species of rodents in the Sahara. Among the species is the jerboa which is related to the squirrel, rat, and mouse. Since the desert is so hot and dry, the jerboa prefers to burrow deep into the sands to more humid soils where it keeps cool.
The Sahara is home to the world’s largest indigenous mammal known as the screwhorn antelope. The antelope travels in small herds throughout Chad, Mauritania, and Western Sahara. What’s fascinating about this animal is that instead of drinking water, it finds its water by extracting it from bushes and grasses. It has oversize hooves which enable it to move through the loose sand with ease.
Several types of hyenas and jackals are some of the carnivores that roam the desert. The Mall Fennec fox is another carnivore that tunnels through the sand to make its home. Chromides and tropical catfish are commonly found in isolated oases in the desert and in Biskra, Algeria.
Experts believe that pygmy crocodiles and cobras may still exist in the remote drainage basins of Tibesti Mountains. Other animals found in the Sahara include the slender mongoose, Libyan striped weasel, sand fox, common jackal, spotted hyena, Anubis baboon, Nubian wild ass, dama deer, Dorcas gazelle, and barbary sheep.
The bird life here is also diverse with over 300 species. Some of the birds found in the Sahara include the fan-tailed raven, pale crag martin, sand lark, desert eagle owl, Nubian bustard, guinea fowl, secretary birds, and the ostrich.
The pools and lakes contain brine shrimp, crocodiles, toads and frogs. Cobras, skinks, chameleons and lizards also live in the dunes and rocks.
Sahara Desert Plants
As for plants in the Sahara, you can expect to find vegetation that is adapted to drought, heat and salty conditions. The Peyote cactus is a succulent plant that can survive in the Sahara for long periods of time by holding back water. It has very thick stems and gives out colorful shoots. The spines you see on the cactus are actually leaves. This is a great adaptation strategy for the cactus because it helps to reduce the rate of evaporation, enabling the plant to retain a lot of water.
Red acacia trees can also be found in the damp valleys of the Sahara desert. The barks of the tree have a red shade which is probably where the name of the tree came from. The trees also have some feathery leaves which people believe protect them from dry winds. For years, the tree has been used to treat stomach and throat inflammation as well as reduce cholesterol levels.
Date palms flourish very well in the Sahara and they are grown as commercial cash crops. The natives here feed their dogs, camels and horses with dried dates. They also use the leaves from the trees to make baskets and furniture.
A popular herb known as thyme also thrives very well in the desert and it’s commonly used in Middle Eastern and African cuisines. It is also a major food source for animals and has been used as a cure for spasms, respiratory infections and indigestion.
People And Culture Of The Sahara Desert
The population in the Sahara is currently around 4 million and a majority of these people live in Mauritania, Libya, Egypt, Algeria and Western Sahara. Most of these people are Black, Berber, Arab or a combination thereof. Most of them don’t live in the cities but prefer to move from one region to another as nomads. Because of this, there are many different languages and nationalities throughout the region although Arabic is the most widely spoken language.
The northern part of the desert is inhabited by Caucasoid people who are represented by Berbers and Arabs. All Saharans adhere to the Islamic faith
The Touareg of Algeria is a nomadic tribe that used to travel in large groups but because of wars, they have been reduced to small groups scattered throughout the desert. Women play a very important role in traditional Touareg culture, with some being given the role of tribe leaders. The tribe is famously known for camel trading but they have slowly evolved into blacksmiths and cattle breeders. Their metal craft, leather work, jewelry and swords have become very popular and are in high demand.
Sahara Desert Facts
1. The Sahara Used To Be Fertile
That’s right. It used to have river valleys, deep forests and lush mountains. Experts believe that the rising of the earth’s temperature and increased desertification turned the area into the desert we see today. People used to grow millet and grains. Some of the prehistoric cave drawings show that the region used to have flora that was green and thriving.
2. The Highest Temperature Ever Recorded Was In The Sahara
Most people think the Sahara is a natural “oven”. Well, it is most of the time during the day but at night the temperatures drop to freezing and below. Some sand dunes do get covered in snow but it’s not enough to open a ski resort. The highest temperature ever recorded on earth was in the Sahara and it was 136 degrees F.
3. The Sahara Isn’t Entirely Ridden With Drought
Believe it or not there are some parts in the Sahara desert that are still rich and fertile. More than 2% of the Sahara is covered in oases and another section is fertile due to irrigation. In fact, endless miles of the Sahara near the Nile have been made fertile by irrigation.
4. It’s Not Dotted With Sand
Thanks to movies, many people think the Sahara is covered with sand dunes. It is true that there are sand dunes and some are as tall as 400ft high but they are not as many as to cover the entire desert. It is estimated that the Sahara is 70% gravel and 30% sand.
5. It Is Home To The Dung Beetle
The dung beetle got its name from the fact that it eats fecal matter and this makes their role in the desert very important. These beetles have the ability to roll dung into a perfect ball and roll it home. Another type of dung beetle lives in dung. These two types of beetles help to break down animal waste which is very essential given that the Sahara receives very little rainfall to dissolve it.
6. It Is Home To The Marathon Des Sables
This is a foot race that happens in Southern Morocco every year in April. You have to enter it several years in advance and it costs more than $4, 500 to participate. The race has six stages and lasts for more than seven days.
Participants have to carry all their supplies on their backs and they are expected to cover a distance of 150miles. Keep in mind that they will have to walk over rocky plateaus and areas covered with sand dunes. Unfortunately, once you start the race, you don’t have the option of dropping out unless you want to die in the harsh environment.
7. It Is Home To Over 1000 Plant Species
The many oases found in the Sahara are probably the reason why there are so many plant species in the region. The driest part of the desert, the south Libya desert, is host to very few of these plant species.
8. It Can Fit All States In North America
The Sahara desert is so big that all the 50 states in North America can comfortably fit there. Surprisingly though, the United States has a population of over 300 million people but the population in the Sahara is approximately 4 million. The harsh conditions of the desert could be the main reason as to why the population is so low.