12 Fascinating Phenomena That Only Occur in Desert Lands

Over 400 Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of 12 Fascinating Phenomena That Only Occur in Desert Lands
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Vote up the coolest desert-based phenomena.

Deserts are some of the most foreboding and mysterious regions found on Earth. The characteristic lack of water makes deserts generally inhospitable, but people have been living in and exploring deserts for thousands of years nonetheless.

What exactly makes a desert? Deserts are barren areas of land where it's tricky for plants and animals to survive. They form thanks to weathering processes, the results of wide variations between night and day temperatures. This variation stresses rocks, which breakdown over time. Combine this with not much rain at all and you'll find yourself smack in the middle of a hot, dusty desert. But it's not all bad - maybe you'll meet a lizard!

What desert phenomena can we find in these regions and what weird desert phenomena still have scientists perplexed? What cool desert phenomena could we witness with enough patience and determination? From haboobs (seriously intense dust storms) to desert varnish, there's lots more happening out in the desert than just lots and lots of sand. Dig into this list to learn about the coolest things that happen in the desert!

Photo: ESO/S. Brunier / Wikimedia Commons

  • 1
    217 VOTES

    Singing Dunes

    Everyone knows about dunes, right? They're what most people think about when they imagine a desert. They form when loose sand accumulates under just the right conditions. You need really dry sand, first of all, because moisture causes the grains to stick together. This is why dunes are most common in the driest climates on earth (but also, weirdly, in places like Michigan, thanks to some voodoo caused by the Great Lakes). You also need something to move the sand around, which is usually wind (but underwater dunes are also a thing). Lastly, you need obstacles for the sand to accumulate around (typically rocks and sparse vegetation). Ta da! Dunes!

    But did you know that some dunes "sing"? It's true: climbing up or sliding down a dune under the right conditions can cause an avalanche that triggers a "100-decibel singing sound" caused by "a feedback loop of collisions." The face of a dune acts as a loudspeaker of sorts, amplifying the vibrations of the shifting and colliding sand. Researchers say you can feel the "song" in your whole body if the conditions are just right.

    217 votes
  • 2
    156 VOTES


    Photo: Sfivat / Wikimedia Commons

    An oasis is not just a small speck in the desert with a few shade trees and a lake for weary travelers to lurch toward after they've emptied their canteens. Roughly 75 percent of the Sahara's population, for example, lives in oases, which vary widely in size. The popular image of an oasis as a desert paradise is pretty accurate: oases in the Sahara feature palm trees and food sources such as figs, peaches, wheat, and barely. The water at the hub of an oasis comes from natural springs or artesian wells and has to be managed carefully to ensure that crops are successful.

    156 votes
  • 3
    124 VOTES

    Desert Potholes

    Desert Potholes
    Photo: Neal Herbert / via NPS / Public Domain

    Finally: a pothole you don't want to fix! Desert potholes - also known as ephemeral pools - are naturally formed sandstone basins that support tiny ecosystems in the desert. The creatures that live in these things are fascinating: they have to endure extreme temperature fluctuations: "Surface temperatures vary from 140 degrees Fahrenheit in summer to below freezing in winter," according to the National Park Service. Many of these "pothole organisms" enter a state of "cryptobiosis" to tolerate the extreme conditions where they basically go into a "Sleep Mode," ceasing all metabolic processes (this means no reproduction and no development). When conditions improve, they simply snap out of it and go about their business.

    124 votes
  • 4
    144 VOTES

    Fairy Circles

    Fairy Circles
    Photo: Thorsten Becker / Wikimedia Commons

    These surreal desert pockmarks may look like something out of a Dr. Suess book, but they're definitely real - and definitely rare. They've only been found two places on the planet: the Namib Desert in South Africa and the Pilbara region in Western Australia. Researchers aren't entirely clear on how, exactly, the circles form, but the leading theory is that plants "organize" themselves into these crazy patterns "according to scarce water availability." The conditions have to be just right for the fairy circles to reveal themselves, and it seems like these two regions cast the right spell: despite being thousands and thousands of miles apart, Australian and African fairy circles are almost identical, with nearly the same repeating hexagonal shapes when viewed from above.

    144 votes
  • 5
    158 VOTES


    The one in the photograph above is a particularly extreme example, but still shaped by the same forces that produce all yardangs. Yardangs are vertical protrusions of bedrock or consolidated sediments shaped by wind abrasion and the removal of loose dust and sand (aka deflation). Typically, yardangs are shaped longer than they are wide relative to the constant direction of the wind that shaped them. They usually appear in groups called "fleets." Try saying it outloud in a sentence: "Let's take our engagement pictures next to that fleet of yardangs." Fun!

    158 votes
  • 6
    118 VOTES


    Photo: Corporal Alicia M. Garcia, U.S. Marine Corps. / Wikimedia Commons

    You've seen a haboob or two in your lifetime, whether you know it or not: haboobs are those menacing dust and sand storms that eventually strike in most movies set in the desert (Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, features a massive haboob). These storms occur when high winds lift loose grains into the air that then fall back to the ground and "eject" even more grains, causing a chain reaction. The dust and sand forms a dramatic wall - with a density sometimes likened to a storm of "dirty snow" - that can stretch thousands of feet high, causing low (or no) visibility. The high winds that accompany haboobs can even uproot trees and power lines.

    118 votes