Exploring large tracts of these desert wastelands on foot must make them seem boundless, with often little but rolling dunes, flat sandy plains or craggy rocks for miles in every direction. It’s no wonder that many people lose their lives attempting to cross such expanses each year. But deserts, which cover one fifth of the planet’s land surface, are also places of great beauty and almost otherworldly wonder – especially when viewed from above, as these stunning aerial photographs clearly show.
In this photograph, water can be seen crisscrossing a section of the Simpson Desert in Central Australia like veins. Although a lack of water defines desert regions, some, like the Simpson Desert, also receive periodic downpours, which flood the dusty plains and carve these sinuous channels. Surprisingly, due to being caught in unexpected floods, more people drown in deserts than die of thirst.
The beautiful and varied desert shades are obvious in this next photograph. The sands of the Simpson Desert, famous for their reddish hues, are composed largely of quartz grains. And it’s the release of iron oxide from the weathered sediment that gives the sand its brilliant colors – ranging from light grays near the water channels, to pink and russet tones.
In this picture, watery arteries wind their way around strange, alien-looking formations. The Simpson Desert lies above the Great Artesian Basin, which is among the world’s largest inland drainage areas. Natural springs carry water to the surface, where it forms an important part of the ecosystem for native vegetation, fish, snails, and various other invertebrates. Unfortunately, because of boreholes drilled along stock routes or by unsuccessful petroleum explorers in the 1960s and ‘80s, these springs have been steadily shrinking over the years.
A giant riverbed twists and turns its way through the desert, illustrating the fact that the Simpson Desert is not always so barren. Although it receives no more than five inches of rain a year, precipitation beyond the desert’s borders fills its rivers and floods its dry plains seasonally. It’s a harsh environment and largely uninhabitable – although desert animals like rabbits and feral camels have been introduced, posing a threat to habitats untouched by agriculture.
Considered the world’s oldest desert, the Namib Desert of southern Africa stretches for more than 1,243 miles. It’s very name means ‘vast place’. And, as even this small section shows, it’s also one of the most stunning deserts in the world. Sand dunes like these have an almost sculptured look and are as beautiful as any man-made artifact. Staggeringly, some of these dunes can reach as high as 980 feet and run for 20 miles. It makes us feel tiny just thinking about it!
If the beauty of these rolling sand dunes makes them look as if they come from another planet, there’s a reason for this. Sand seas, like those found in the Namib Desert, are technically known as ‘ergs’ (which isn’t quite as romantic sounding as ‘sand sea’, is it?). Ergs are also found other planets, like Mars and Venus, where – just like Earth’s dune seas – they are formed by sand swept along by strong winds.
There’s probably no other name that springs to mind quicker when we think of deserts than the Sahara – indeed, the word ‘Sahara’ actually means ‘the great desert’ in Arabic. This image is certainly different to the usual stylized pictures of sand dunes and camels. Here, dry river channels form a tree shape in sand, which almost looks as though it’s glowing.
It’s no surprise to learn that the Sahara Desert is one of the hottest places on Earth. And as you’d imagine, there isn’t much moisture, other than that which flows in via sporadic or seasonal streams. Oh, and of course we can’t forget the mighty Nile, the only permanent river here. Other water runs underground, though, occasionally emerging to form a desert oasis.
If you told somebody that this rusty red landscape was a photo of Mars, it’s very likely they’d believe you. It’s not the Red Planet, of course, but a dry river channel in our Blue Planet’s very own Sahara Desert. The Sahara is often mistakenly referred to as the largest desert in the world. It’s actually the third largest, behind Antarctica and the Arctic, respectively. The Sahara is, however, the largest hot desert on Earth. And at 3,600,000 square miles in size, there’s more than enough space to get lost here.
This photograph of the Sahara looks like it was taken during a dust storm. Ripples run through the sand, and it all looks so small from up here – but sand dunes in the Sahara can reach up to 590 feet high! Not quite as tall as the dunes in the Namib Desert, but still pretty amazing – especially when you remember they’re created simply by wind, sand and the odd spot of rain.
Taken from a plane leaving Las Vegas, this aerial shot likely shows some of the spectacular valleys and cliffs of the Mojave Desert. Yet what it really illustrates is Planet Earth in action. As the top layer, or crust, of our planet stretches – through extensional tectonics – cracks or faults like these form in the landscape.
Within the Mojave Desert lies Death Valley, the lowest and hottest place in North America. And the rest of the desert isn’t too comfortable either, with temperatures on the valley floors ranging from around 120 °F in summer to 20 °F in winter! We think we’ll just admire the view from up here!
The topography of the Mojave, much like that of the Great Basin Desert, which we’ll explore a little further down the list, is made up of mountains and basins. Apart from being a place of extreme temperatures, this desert is remarkably windy, and wind farms have been set up to harness this natural force.
Marc Antoine Dubois, the photographer who took this shot, didn't know the name of the desolate tract beneath him, and since he captured it while flying over Arizona, it could be any number of half a dozen arid regions, from the Tonopah Desert, to the Yuma Desert, to the Chihuahuan Desert.
Photographer Brad Gutting took these next few photographs on a flight from Los Angeles to St. Louis. He, too, wasn’t sure exactly which desert this shows, but given his route, he may well have flown over Great Basin Desert – the largest desert in the US.
Spread across Nevada, parts of California, Idaho, Oregon, and the western desert regions of Utah, the Great Basin Desert covers an area of 200,000 square miles. But unlike the other deserts on this list, the Great Basin is a ‘cold’ desert, thanks to its latitude and elevation.
Paths cut by water create wrinkles in otherwise flat looking parts of desert landscapes. Several streams wind through the Great Basin region, although the amount of water flowing through them varies with the seasons. From this distance, these veins of riverbeds might look empty right now. But they could easily be gushing with water during spring runoff.
The Great Basin landscape is made up of long mountain ranges, valleys, basins, and lakes. The earth beneath the desert is highly volatile, stretching and cracking in some places, pushing up mountains and widening basins in others. Eventually, the North American plate below will break in two, and the sea will flood in and divide the two sides.
As the puffy white clouds lingering at the top of this photograph might hint, the Sonoran Desert in North America is one of the wettest in the world. Not that it isn’t dry compared to other non-desert environments, but it does get seasonal rainfall, particularly in summer, which helps wildflowers to grow and adds more color to its otherwise arid environment. Still, even when the land is barren, it’s still gorgeous to look at.
Our look at beautiful deserts from the air wouldn’t be complete without Arizona’s Painted Desert. The Painted Desert is famous for its beautiful layers of sediment filled with iron and manganese compound, which give the region its distinctive bands of color and ‘badlands topography’ – and which you can just make out in this picture if you look carefully! From up here we can see the beautiful orange, mauve and pink tones. Nature really is the master designer.
Whether they’re covered in sand, rocks or even ice, deserts have a not unjustified reputation for being harsh and inhospitable places – especially if you’re lost in one. But as we have seen, they can also be places of wonder and inspiration. And, far from being empty, they do actually contain abundant plant and animal life – living things not found in any other environments. Sometimes, even particularly hardy people make the desert their home. We hope you’ve enjoyed this bird’s eye view of some of the drier regions of our planet as much as we have.