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Ar Rub' al-Khali Desert, Saudi Arabia
Natural World: Deserts
Photo of the Empty Quarter desert in Saudi Arabia
Photograph by Thomas J. Abercrombie
The Ar Rub' al-Khali (Empty Quarter) desert stretches across Saudi Arabia and Oman.

In the southern Arabian Peninsula, the world's largest expanse of sand stretches for 250,000 square miles (647,000 square kilometers). The Ar Rub' al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, is the king of all Middle Eastern deserts.

The rare unbroken sweep of pure sand was formed over eons. Water and wind eroded volcanic highlands and dry seabeds down to pebbles and grains, which were blown into huge dunes—some nearly 1,000 feet (300 meters) high.

Years can go by with no rain in the Empty Quarter. Despite this, plants such as saltbushes, sedge grasses, and abal bushes survive, as do desert-adapted animals. Sand foxes need no water and eat rodents and reptiles; desert hares stay in deep burrows during brutal summer days; birds thrive on the juices of insects.

People, too, have adapted to the Empty Quarter's harsh landscape, extreme temperatures, withering winds, and cold winter nights. Bedouin nomads roam the sands, taking their camels to sparse grazing grounds. In addition to providing a means of transportation, camels also provide milk, sometimes the only food or drink available.

Asia is also home to three of the world's largest cold deserts, where temperatures can drop to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-43 degrees Celsius).

The Chang Tang, on the Plateau of Tibet in China, is the largest and highest plateau in the world. It covers more than 950,000 square miles (2.5 million square kilometers)—more than three times the size of Texas.

China's Taklimakan Desert covers about 130,000 square miles (337,000 square kilometers) in the far west of the country, where it is shielded by the Himalaya.

The Gobi (Mongolian for "waterless place") is the least populated area outside the polar caps. The world's northernmost desert, the Gobi stretches for 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers) through northern China and Mongolia.

The Gobi is home to Badain Jaran, one of the most unique places on Earth. Spring-fed lakes fill valleys separating the world's largest sand dunes. These dunes can reach 1,200 feet (366 meters) high. The interior of each of the huge dunes is millions of years old.



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