Only one continent in the world doesn’t have a desert. For example, Africa has the Sahara Desert. Asia has the Gobi Central Asian deserts in the Middle East. Australia has the great Victoria. North America has the Great Basin, and South America has the Atacama Desert.
Even if you look at it from this space, Europe is the only continent surprisingly with no deserts. It’s lush and green. The question is, why are deserts so widespread around the world except in the European continent?
Why Europe has no desert?
When you hear the word desert, chances are you think of the sun and sand, which might give you the feeling of thirst. Also, cacti, vultures, scorpions, or possibly camels and oases come to mind. But in truth, deserts come in all shapes and sizes and vary considerably from one part of the world to the next. Scientifically, a desert is an arid ecosystem that receives fewer than ten inches of rain annually.
Also, deserts are defined by having a greater annual evaporation rate than annual precipitation, and they do not have to be hot. Deserts include polar deserts, subtropical deserts, and cool coastal deserts. Many people think the Sahara is the largest desert globally, but it’s not. It’s not even the second largest. The largest desert on earth is the Antarctic desert covering the continent of Antarctica, with a size of around 5.5 million square miles. The second-largest in the Arctic Desert with 5.4 million square miles.
These two are known as polar deserts. Finally, the third biggest is the Sahara Desert, which is subtropical with 3.5 million square miles, desert ecosystem support, little vegetation, and animal life, as the conditions are incredibly harsh. On the opposite end, the area that receives more than ten inches of rain is humid, and it’s mostly Europe tropical areas like Amazon, Central Africa, and East Asia.
If you look at the map with the world’s deserts and drylands, deserts cover around 40% of the Earth’s land area. Moreover, it’s expanding yearly, covering much of North Africa, North America, Australia, the Middle East, and Central Asia. These drylands are home to approximately 3 billion people.
Surprisingly, there are no single deserts in the European continent. The Berners in Spain are classified as semi-desert, and the largest desert in France is due to land. Even Germany has one in Brandenburg. It’s around five square kilometers. There are a handful of other areas considered somewhat deserts in Europe.
Here are some reasons why Europe has no desert:
Climate: Deserts usually form in areas with low rainfall. Europe’s climate is largely temperate, characterized by moderate to high yearly rainfall. Even in southern Europe, where the climate is Mediterranean with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters, the annual rainfall is typically too high for deserts to form.
Geographical Location: Many of the world’s largest deserts are around 30 degrees latitude, where high-pressure zones can lead to desert conditions. Europe is generally too far north for these conditions.
Ocean Currents: Ocean currents play a big role in a region’s climate. The warm Gulf Stream current in the Atlantic Ocean helps keep Europe’s climate milder and wetter than other regions at similar latitudes.
Mountain Ranges: Europe’s major mountain ranges, such as the Alps and the Pyrenees, help to distribute rainfall across the continent by forcing moist air to rise and cool, leading to precipitation.
Human Activity: Over thousands of years, human activity has significantly altered Europe’s landscape, including farming, urbanization, and reforestation. These activities can make it less likely for desert conditions to develop.
Three main factors are Rainfall, Rain shadow effect, and Warm water.
High amounts of rainfall
Most of Europe has sufficiently high amounts of rainfall. So desert climates don’t form. There are a lot of variables that prevent desertification in Europe. For example, it’s mostly because of the atmospheric circulation model called Hadley cells.
Sahara is a massive desert because of this Hadley cells model, which are large-scale atmospheric circulation loops that take moisture from places along the latitude of the Sahara and the American Southwest and drop it along the equator in the Congo and Amazon. The same thing happens on the other side of the equator, with the Australian outback losing moisture to Indonesia.
Lack of rain shadow effect
The reason why deserts form is because of the rain shadow effect. Suppose you look at where two areas are separated by an extensive mountain range, like the Himalayas in the Indian subcontinent or the Sierra Nevada in California. In that case, you will notice that one-half gets tons of rain and resembles a rainforest. The other half gets virtually no rain and resembles a desert. The reason is that trade winds are controlled by Hadley cells and the Coriolis effect once again.
When moist, humid air moves in from a large body of water like an ocean, it moves inland and rains itself over one-half. Then when it travels over a mountain range, it dries itself out. As a result, once it passes into the other half, all the rain is gone, and the winds are dry. So desert formation depends on the latitude and shape of the continent.
Europe is fairly small compared to other continents and surrounded by ocean on three of its four sides. Prevailing winds and weather come from the Atlantic and make their way west, dropping moisture. Additionally, the North Sea and the Mediterranean add moisture as well. The mountain ranges like the Alps help by generating orographic rainfall, and then that moisture is mostly gone by the time the wind.
The eastern edge of Europe has large deserts. Northern Africa, in contrast, is mostly desert because weather patterns and directions are different and not moisture-laden. Southern Africa is wetter because the weather patterns differ as you move south in latitude. So it mostly goes down back to Hadley cells.
Presence of relatively warm water
Another important factor is the presence of relatively warm water around Europe. For example, the warm Gulf Stream runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the northern part of the continent. It bears heavy rainfall on the continent because the warm ocean waters cause powerful fumes. It is one of the big reasons why the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Northern Europe are rainy and very cloudy.
Also, the rest of southern Europe is more important is the impact of the warm Mediterranean. It makes autumn and winter fairly moist and protects the southern parts of the continent from desertification.
Although summers are very long and dry because of the climate and the rising temperatures by 2100, southern Europe, mainly the Iberian Peninsula, might turn into a desert if carbon emission trends continue.
Carbon emissions and climate change is accelerating desertification around the world. As a matter of fact, more carbon resides in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined. There are 2500 billion tonnes of carbon in the soil, compared with 800 billion tonnes in the atmosphere in 560 billion tonnes in plant and animal life.
So desertification is a much more serious threat to humanity than fossil fuels and chemical industries, as 40% of the land surface is already a desert. They are expanding at an alarming rate. The European continent is vast carbon storage. So they are fighting against desertification by planting trees and implementing large-scale afforestation.
Los desiertos de Navarra”. Diario Vasco.
Hunt, Nick. “‘Why go to the Sahara when you can visit Kent?’: ‘Desert’ life in Dungeness”. The Guardian.
Meinig, Donald. The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2: Continental America, 1800–1867. Yale University Press.
Table of Contents