Picture a desert. Maybe you see sand dunes and cacti, maybe some rocks and the skeleton of a deceased animal, circled patiently by a vulture. Perhaps you can feel your skin burning just standing there under that intense imaginary sun.
Desert ecosystems are inhospitable places to most organisms — they're always dry and often hot, at least some of the time. However, there are two different classifications for deserts: hot deserts and cold deserts. A cold desert, like the Gobi Desert in East Asia, is very dry, but doesn't often get much hotter than Paris in springtime, although the wintertime temperatures often have a negative sign in front of them. But hot deserts are what come to mind when we think of desert ecosystems.
Hot deserts are situated around the equator, so their temperatures can be very high during the hottest months — average temps might hover between 84 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit (29 and 35 degrees Celsius) with midday spikes often exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius). Hot deserts are not only blisteringly hot, they're dry and sunny. While there's no real way to rank the hottest deserts on Earth — all the hot ones are really, really hot, OK? — here are five of the hottest spots on the planet:
1. The Lut Desert
The Lut Desert, or Dasht-e Lut, a 20,000-square-mile (51,800-square-kilometer) area of eastern Iran is often the hottest place on the planet in any given year. One 2011 study found that between 2003 and 2009, it out-scorched all the other hot deserts five out of the seven years — in 2005, the temperature there peaked at 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit (70.7 degrees Celsius) when measured by NASA satellite.
2. The Sahara Desert
You've heard of this one. The Sahara is the largest of the world's hot deserts — it covers 3,600,000 square miles (9,200,000 square kilometers) of Northern Africa! Most of the Sahara experiences average high temperatures between 100 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit (38 and 40 degrees Celsius) during the hottest period of the year.
3. The Flaming Mountains
On the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert of northwest China sit the Flaming Mountains, a 60-mile (100-kilometer) long chain of red sandstone hills, eroded into the shape of flames. Not only do the Flaming Mountains appear to blaze, hot season temperatures are blistering: In 2008, the high temperature for the planet was recorded by NASA satellite here at 152 degrees Fahrenheit (66.8 degrees Celsius).
4. The Mojave Desert
In August 2020, Death Valley in the Mojave Desert in Southern California clocked the highest verified temperature by thermometer on land ever recorded: 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The 47,877-square-mile (124,000-square-kilometer) Mojave regularly breaks temperature records, partly because it sits below sea level and partly because it's so close to civilization and accessible to accurate thermometers, which need to be elevated and shielded from the sun in order to be verified.
5. The Atacama Desert
Although the 40,441-square-mile (104,741-square-kilometer) Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru is a very hot desert with daytime temperatures hovering around 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) in the hot season, some places in the world get hotter. However, no hot desert is drier than the Atacama, which averages only about half an inch (1.5 centimeters) of rain per year, and some years are entirely rainless.