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International Year of Deserts and Desertification

Deserts in Australia
Photo: Tourism NSW Sturt National Park

Australia is the worlds driest inhabited continent. It contains the largest desert region in the southern hemisphere and over 70 per cent of the continent receives between 100mm to 350mm of rainfall annually, which classes it as arid or semi-arid. Within this vast area are not only classic landscapes of bare shifting sands, but also unique and varied environments such as mountain ranges, grasslands, woodlands, shrublands, rivers and salt lakes.

Australias deserts can mainly be found in central and western Australia. The total area of desert makes up about 18 per cent of the mainland area of Australia. Globally, deserts can be divided into five types: Subtropical Deserts which are found where general atmospheric circulation brings dry, subtropical air into midlatitudes, for example the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa. Continental Deserts which are found in the continental interiors, far from source of moisture where hot summers and cold winters prevail, for example the Great Basin in the USA. Rainshadow Desertswhich are found where mountainous regions cause air to rise and condense, dropping its moisture

as it passes over the mountains, for example the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Coastal Desertswhich are found where cold upwelling seawater cools the air and decreases its ability to hold moisture, for example the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Polar Desertswhich are found in polar regions where cold dry air prevails and the moisture available remains frozen throughout the entire year, for example Antarctica. The most extensive deserts in the world, and all of Australias deserts, are categorised as subtropical

Distribution of Australias Deserts (Produced by Environmental Resources Information Network Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006).

deserts. Subtropical deserts are associated with the two circumglobal belts of dry, descending air centred between latitudes 20o and 30o north and south of the Equator, along the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Australias deserts are hot deserts, which mean that they are areas of little rainfall and extreme temperatures. The desert is such a harsh environment that temperatures can rise to over 50oC and have less than 250mm of rain per year and an average humidity (moisture in the air) of between 10 and 20 per cent. By comparison, Brisbane, which occurs at the same latitude as many of Australias inland deserts, has an average annual temperature of 25.4oC, yearly average rainfall of 1185mm and an average humidity at 9.00am of 66 per cent (Bureau of Meteorology website). When we think of desert landscapes, people often imagine them as sandy dunefields. In fact, only 15 per cent of the worlds deserts are made up of sand! Australias sandy deserts are generally made up of longitudinal sand dunes, oriented parallel with the dominant wind direction. Some of the longest dunes in the world (sometimes hundreds of kilometres long) are found in the Simpson Desert in South Australia. Other sandy deserts in Australia include The Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia and The Great

Victoria Desert in Western and South Australia. Some of Australias deserts are stony deserts or gibber plains. These are deserts covered with small stones or gibbers and have no sand cover. Australian stony deserts include The Gibson Desert in Western Australia and The Sturt Stony Desert spanning parts of Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales.

The International Year of Deserts and Desertification is being held to celebrate our unique ecosystems as well as raising awareness about desertification and the threats to our deserts. Australia has many unique ecosystems and our deserts are a prominent part of our nations landscapes and culture.

Unless otherwise stated, photos Australian National Botanic Gardens

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Photo: Robert Thorn

Photo: Ciara OSullivan