9 Interesting Facts About The Sahara Desert

Marathon des sables people running through the desert
Marathon des sables racers runing up a large ridge (Wikipedia Commons)

First of all, just where is the Sahara Desert?

Take a peek at northern Africa on a map, and most of what you in fact see is the Sahara. From the Atlantic, north to the Mediterranean, and east to the Red Sea, most of Africa’s northern reaches have been swallowed up by the ever-expanding Sahara.

Satellite images of the Sahara desert
Satellite images of the Sahara desert (NASA world Wind)

Interestingly, “Sahara,” in Arabic, means desert. Therefore, any reference to the “Sahara Desert” is a bit redundant. Some of the acts about this massive and arid expanse can be interesting, or downright confounding!

1. It’s not even the biggest desertDespite what you may have learned in school, the Sahara desert is not actually the world’s largest desert. The largest desert in the world is…NOT the Sahara! It’s Antarctica! Still, the Sahara is pretty darn big, and getting bigger everyday. Just in the time since John Glenn first orbited the earth, it has expanded by another 250,000 sq mi to now cover over 3.6 million square miles.

The Sahara desert now comprises eight percent of the world’s land area — one could actually place the entire continental United States within the Sahara Desert and still have a few thousand square miles of desert left over. In reality, eleven countries have parts of the Sahara Desert within their borders. They are: Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Chad, Morocco, Eritrea, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, and the Sudan.

2. Very few call it homeThe continental U.S. is home to 300 million individuals. The Sahara, covering the same land area, is home to just two million. That’s a population density of just 1/150th of that of the U.S.

3. The Sahara used to be rich, fertile farmlandThe Sahara was not always this big, poorly populated sandbox. As recently as 6,000 BC, grains and millet were grown across much of what is now the Sahara. In fact, prehistoric cave drawings have been discovered in parts of the Sahara that actually depict the flora as green and thriving.

4. The Sahara? Brrrrr . . .

sahara snow
Rory Cellan / Flickr
Although most people think of the Sahara desert as a giant oven, at least from December to February, the lack of humidity in the Sahara causes nighttime temperatures to plunge, often to freezing and below.

Also, like the mountains in Antarctica, some sand dunes in the Sahara can get snow-covered. There are no ski resorts however!

Now, when it comes to hot temperatures, the all-time record high in Antarctica is just 59 degrees F. By contrast, the Sahara generates some of the hottest temperatures on the planet. In fact, the all-time hottest temperature ever recorded was 136 degrees F, in Azizia, Libya, in 1922.

5. Parts of the Sahara are rich and fertile, even today

hoggar oasis
An oasis in the Ahaggar Mountains (Wikimedia Commons)
Crops grew here in abundance 8,000 years ago, remember? Underground rivers that flow out of the Atlas Mountains to the west bubble to the surface in places, and lush oases occasionally result. In fact, there’s about 80,000 sq mi of oases across the Sahara. That is, over two percent of the Sahara is covered by oases. Another section is fertile thanks to irrigation.

In Eqypt, near the Nile, endless miles of the Sahara have been transformed by irrigation.

6. Over a thousand species of plants grow here
Actually, the number is closer to 1,200. The very driest part of the Sahara, the south Libyan desert, harbors very few of those. However, the many oases account for many hundreds of different plant species.

7. It’s not even half sand

hoggar desert
Algerian desert (Wikimedia Commons)
Thoughts of the Sahara invariably conjure up images of endless giant sand dunes. And yes, there certainly are dunes; in the south of Libya, some tower to over 400 feet high. One could stack the Statue of Liberty on top of itself, and hide both versions behind one of those towering dunes!

However, in many places, the sand comprises only a thin layer atop a gravel substrata. In other spots the shifting sands have in fact laid bare the gravel base. It is estimated that, overall, the Sahara is just 30 percent sand and 70 percent gravel.

8. Then, there’s the Dung Beetle

2 dung beetles
2 dung beetles fighting over a ball of dung (Wikimedia Commons)
Now, you’re probably hoping that this is a beetle that got its name from having a shell that simply looks like a heap of dung. Alas, the Dung Beetle does indeed feast on fecal matter. Their unique taste for animal waste is actually rather essential in the Sahara.

One such type of beetle can make an almost perfect ball out of a piece of dung and then roll it home. But Dung beetles don’t just eat fecal matter, another type of Dung Beetle calls a pile of dung “Home Sweet Home.” Rumor has it that their sense of smell is not very well developed! Fortunately, all of this activity helps to break down animal waste in the desert, which is rather essential, given the lack of rain to otherwise dissolve it into the sand.

9. Home to the toughest foot race ever

Marathon des sables
Marathon des sables racers runing up a large ridge (Wikipedia Commons)
The Marathon des Sables (MDS) is run in the Sahara in southern Morocco each year in April. It has to be entered several years in advance, and it costs over $4,500 to participate. It’s the perfect foot race for the masochistic and the courageous alike.

The race is run in six stages over seven days, and runners have to carry all of their supplies on their backs. The total distance covered over sand dunes and rocky plateaus is 150 miles. The mythological Forrest Gump in the movie of the same name ran and ran until one day he just stopped, but at the MDS in the Sahara, these intrepid contestants don’t really have that option — if they want to live, that is.

Truly, some of the facts about the Sahara Desert are strange indeed. Then again, is this really surprising? The sahara is a vast expanse stretching for over 3,000 miles across the northern tier of Africa. That’s a lot of space in which environmental, geological, and other quirks can occur.