Difference Between Tropical & Temperate Deserts

by Katherine Bradley

Deserts are areas that have extreme temperatures and low precipitation. For many people, the word "desert" conjures up thoughts of a hot and sandy environment. However, not all deserts are hot and sandy, though they do have at least one thing in common -- they're dry. Temperate and tropical deserts both share this characteristic, but they also share some distinct differences. The temperature, climate and diversity of animal life, plant life and geographic features are notable differences.

Temperature and Precipitation

Temperate and tropical deserts differ considerably in the average annual temperature and precipitation. Temperate deserts can be much colder than tropical deserts, averaging less than 10 degrees Celsius. Although the amount of precipitation is less than 100 cm/year for both deserts, temperate deserts have significantly less rainfall than the tropical desert.

Geographic Features

Sand dunes are a typical feature of tropical deserts.

While many tropical deserts are sandy areas with dunes, low vegetation and a scarcity of water, temperate deserts are typically rockier regions, dotted with grasses and shrubs. Canyons, exposed bedrock and hoodoo formations are common features of the temperate desert. The floor of the temperate desert is often covered by rocks and small pebbles that have been left behind after strong winds have removed soil cover.

Animal LIfe

In many deserts, animals are predominantly nocturnal, a survival adaptation employed to escape the extreme temperatures. Animals that burrow to escape heat -- such as mice, snakes, lizards and scorpions -- are common in the tropical desert, while animals that burrow to escape cold -- such as bears and foxes -- are common in the temperate desert.

Plant Life

Large cacti are a common sight in the tropical desert.

Cactus plants, the most common desert plants, are found in all types of deserts. Cacti in the tropical desert are large, reaching as much as 20 meters in height when full grown. Smaller cacti dot the expanse of the temperate desert. Plants from the pea family and sunflower family are common to the tropical desert as well, while plants adapted to extreme cold grow in the temperate desert.

About the Author

Katherine Bradley began writing in 2006. Her education and leadership articles have been published on Education.com, Montessori Leadership Online and the Georgia Educational Researcher. Bradley completed a Ph.D. in educational leadership from Mercer University in 2009.

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