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High-elevation deserts are found in some parts of the world, such as Tibet and Nevada, and are typically in the rain shadow of mountain ranges.


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High-elevation deserts are not like the low-lying Sahara, and are instead inland from oceans. They share some features in common with continental climates, though these deserts' high elevation reduces temperature. Since higher latitudes with similar precipitation patterns typically feature tundra or ice cap climates, high deserts are typically closer to the equator than the North Pole. Due to the distances between these deserts — as their requirement of a high elevation limits the number found around the globe — each has a unique geographical situation; and while the dry highlands of the Andes are in equatorial latitudes with lowlands to the east and west, the Great Basin in the United States is approximately 40 degrees north of the equator with towering mountain ranges to its east and west. The diversity of these deserts, and therefore the climate differences between them, mean that they do not have a Koppen climate classification of their own, with the closest matches (depending on the microclimate) being semi-arid, arid, tundra, and Mediterranean.

While deserts are sometimes defined by arbitrary precipitation totals, such as 10 in (250 mm) a year, there are many places around the world that receive more than this amount but would still be considered "dry" by temperate-climate standards. Some of the places mentioned in this article include annual rainfall totals above 10 inches per year, but still largely or completely share the flora of a desert, and therefore are designated as "high-elevation deserts" for the sake of this article's scope.

Also unlike their counterparts, high-elevation deserts (partially by definition) are themselves the location of mountain ranges. The mixture of valleys and steep-sided mountain ranges present in high elevation deserts result in large, spectacular canyons, many of which lead away from the deserts themselves.

Due to low cloud cover, high elevation and low population, those areas tend to be good places for stargazing and professional astronomy. The fact that light pollution tends to be lower helps.


Great Basin[edit]

Main article: Great Basin
A typical scene in one of the mountain ranges of the Great Basin

East of the forests of the Sierra Nevada, the highest peaks of which reach heights of 14,000 ft (4,300 m), is a swift descent of a few thousand feet into a region that is completely different. This region, known as the 1 Great Basin is quite dry despite its elevation. It consists of a number of north-south mountain ranges that are each a couple thousand feet high, which themselves are between valleys of a similar depth, and these span the width of the state of Nevada and extend into other states as well, especially Utah.

The mountain ranges, which like the Sierras receive more precipitation than the valleys below, are a home for juniper trees and grasslands, and vary from being steep-sided to lower, and more like hills, in some parts. While populated areas are typically in the lower elevations, the population densities throughout the region are low, with the exception of a few larger places that could be called "cities," such as Utah's Salt Lake City. The small towns of the region, such as Fallon and Ely, are separated by wilderness that is mostly uninhabited.

  • The Grand Circle of United States national parks are inland from the Pacific Coast but still within the western United States. The parks include substantial portions of land in the high-elevation deserts of the and showcase some of the most dramatic scenery not only in this kind of desert, but also some of the world's most famous national parks. Due to elevation changes in the West, some parks range from high elevation (and increased precipitation) to low elevation (and decreased precipitation), making them examples of how elevation changes affect ecosystems and even the fossil record.
    • At Great Basin National Park is a diversity of terrain, as you can explore plant life from high and low elevations alike on one of the Basin's highest mountain ranges. If you follow the park road that ascends the lower part of Mount Wheeler, there are excellent views of the valley to the east, the location of Baker. The park includes a visitor center, the Lehman Caves and bristlecone pine woodlands; these are ancient but small trees that live in the region's higher mountain slopes.
  • Other areas of land in the United States National Parks System:


Main article: Tibet
Map of High-elevation deserts

North of the Himalayas is the high-elevation 2 Tibetan Plateau Tibet on Wikipedia. It's a great expanse of high-elevation desert, which becomes the low-elevation Taklimakan Desert to the north, in the vicinity of which is the Turpan Depression, the lowest point in China. Tibet itself is home to Lhasa, the main city, but otherwise has a low population. There are some spectacular canyons in the east of Tibet as the dry highlands give way to the lower, wetter, more densely populated part of China toward the coast. On the western boundary going toward Central Asia are more high mountains, such as K2; some of these mountains on their opposite side give way to the lower Fergana Valley.

Despite being in subtropical/temperate latitudes, Tibet's high elevation gives it a cold climate. Lhasa, which is lower-lying, has a more subtropical climate with a warm, wet season during the summer, but despite this is classified as "semi-arid" by the Köppen classification system due to the extremely low precipitation during winter.

The Tibetan Plateau features precipitation from 100 to 300 millimetres (4 to 12 inches), most of which is hail. Frost is a common occurrence throughout the colder months of the year, and some regions feature permafrost; and winter temperatures in Changtang, one of the most remote regions in the world, can fall as low as −40 °C (−40 °F).

  • 5 Yarlong River National Park contains the Yalung Zangbo Canyon, the world's largest canyon.
  • There are numerous lakes in Tibet, including 6 Yamdrok Lake Yamdrok Lake on Wikipedia.


Main article: Andes

The 3 Andes Mountains is the location of a large, high-elevation dry region. The mountains are between rainforest and the Atacama Desert, but in the high plateaus of these mountains, indigenous people have survived in large numbers. The Andes is the location of numerous volcanoes and the highest mountain in the Americas.

The Andes are split into several ranges that are separated by intermediate depressions. There are several high plateaus here where the cities of Bogotá, Sucre, and some other well-known South American cities are found, and the city of 4 La Rinconada, the highest in the world, is in the Andes. However, the city does not have sanitation or plumbing services, and temperatures average around freezing due to the high elevation.

After the Tibetan Plateau, the 5 Altiplano Plateau Altiplano on Wikipedia, which is in the Andes, is the world's second highest plateau. The articles Andean Northwest (Argentina), Altiplano (Bolivia) and Altiplano (Peru) contain detailed information about the Altiplano.

  • The mountain 7 Chimborazo, which reaches 6,263 m (20,548 ft), is Ecuador's highest mountain.
  • 8 Lake Titicaca is one of the highest-elevation lakes in the world, but also covers a substantial surface area.
  • 9 Mount Aconcagua is the highest mountain in either North or South America, the region referred to by Europeans as the "New World" or the "Western Hemisphere." It occupies a relatively narrow part of the Andes, compared to the regions to the north.
  • 10 Salar de Uyuni


These deserts have vast regions of open space with few people, and this can be experienced by following the highways that cross these regions. Highways, at times, are kept at better quality than expected, as they are not as prone to wear and tear from trucks and other vehicles that tend to follow routes through populated areas. Gas stations, restaurants, and hotels can however be far apart from each other.

  • The Loneliest Road in America (a section of U.S. Route 50) crosses the Great Basin, and therefore is a good way to see high-elevation desert. It goes through remote wilderness for many miles across the state of Nevada; highways in western Utah continue the trend all the way to I-15.
  • The Pony Express Pony Express on Wikipedia crossed the Great Basin region. In fact, there's a stop on Route 50 that mentions the route.
  • A considerable part of the Argentine Ruta 40 goes through high-elevation desert.

Stay safe[edit]

See also: Altitude sickness

High-elevation deserts tend to have low populations due to climate. Elevation causes temperature to decrease significantly, and this can cause cold winters from 5,000 ft (1,500 m) or higher in many temperate regions. By the time elevations above 10,000 ft (3,000 m) or even 12,000 ft (3,700 m) are reached in the Andes and Tibet, this can cause relatively cold weather to persist year-round, when compared to nearby lower elevations. When there are valleys and mountains (sometimes referred to as "basin-and-range"), mountains in high-elevation deserts can be far higher than nearby valleys, and the accumulation of both basin and mountain range elevation cause these regions to have cold weather and snow persisting far into the summer season. While the plateau/valley of a high-elevation desert may have temperate conditions during spring, mountain roads can become impassable, and with the lack of forests a typical feature of high-elevation deserts, with exceptions in parts of the Great Basin, it tends to be hard to judge elevation increase from a nearby valley to a mountainside, and what can seem like a short distance down the side of a slope can in reality be thousands of feet.

While elevation certainly works to reduce temperatures, this doesn't mean that high temperatures are impossible in some of these deserts. The Great Basin is an example: its inland location makes high temperatures possible in summer. These would likely be higher—in the neighborhood of Badwater's record-breaking temperatures—if not for elevation, which keeps summer temperatures from going far beyond the "heat wave" category. Mountain ranges such as the Andes, while cooler, have neighboring regions that receive scorching temperatures, so expect lower foothills to receive high temperatures too.

If something goes wrong, you can't expect help so quickly — very similar to the concerns you would have in a typical desert. These regions are, in many cases, simply too remote for emergency services to operate as efficiently as they would in urban and suburban areas.

See also[edit]

  • Deserts are the driest regions of the earth. High-elevation deserts are a kind of desert.
  • Mountain ranges can be found in or around high-elevation deserts; there is a reason that high-elevation deserts have their name.
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