The Sahara Desert: Hot Sands of Africa

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The Sahara Desert is one of the world's most recognizable places. It is also one of the harshest places to live.

The desert stretches 3,000 miles across the northern part of Africa. More than one-quarter of its surface is sand dunes, some as high as 500 feet. A handful of mountains can be found in the Sahara, with the summit being Mount Koussi, at 11,204 feet.

As would be expected, the climate of the Sahara Desert is hot and dry. The desert is dominated by strong winds, which blow the sand from place to place, leaving landscapes to change regularly. Timbuktu, one of the most famous cities in the world, is being covered bit by bit in sand. Many of the houses in this remote city are already below ground level.

The northern part of the desert is subtropical and has cold winters and two rainy seasons. The dry southern desert has a rainy season and a mild, dry winter. Rainfall in either half is never very significant, numbering less than 5 inches for an entire year. When the rain does come, though, it comes sometimes with a ferocity. Amazingly, some people have been known to drown in the Sahara because of the sweeping floods that often accompany a freak rainstorm that showers a sandy plain.

The Sahara is not all sand by any means. Hundreds of miles of surface and underground water dot the landscape and sublandscape. Large bodies of water include the Nile River and Lake Chad. Smaller bodies of water known as oases can be found nearly everywhere. Some maintain a steady supply of water, but some dry up not long after they have formed. Waterfalls are not uncommon but appear strikingly out of place in their sandy surroundings.

Another common feature in the desert is rocks. Plateaus contain large boulders, and full-blown mountains are not uncommon (and get lots of snow in the winter). Some mountains are volcanic as well and are a mix of live and dormant.

Grasses, trees, and plants can be found in the Sahara, although nearly all species are hearty, drought-resistant survivors. Animals can be plentiful, including hundreds of species of reptiles and mammals. The number of species of birds alone tops 300. Many of those species are migratory, however, able to move quickly to a new home if their water supply literally dries up.

As for people, not surprisingly, the Sahara Desert has one of the lowest population densities on the planet. In the 3.5 million square miles of sands, mountains, and waterways live just 2.5 million people. Obviously, the population is the largest near lakes and rivers. Even so, the majority of the people are nomads.

The climate of the Sahara has gradually gotten harsher. Archaeological remains point to water sources much more widely available and a population much more spread out.

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David White