Polar Deserts: Exploring the Most Arid Regions in the Arctic & Antarctica

April 22, 2015


Polar deserts: on the surface, these two words don’t seem to quite fit together. However, deserts aren’t always blazing hot. In fact, there are over 5,000,000 square kilometers of polar desert on Earth. And they’re found in just two regions on Earth: the Arctic and Antarctica, and you may just come across one on your polar expedition.

Photo by Samantha Crimmin

What is a Polar Desert?

A polar desert is defined as a region with a mean temperature during the warmest month of less than 10 degrees Celsius and annual precipitation of no more than 250 millimeters.

Consisting primarily of gravel plains and bedrock, these regions were more common during ice ages, due in large part to cold temperatures that encompassed most areas of Earth, as well as a lack of precipitation.

While not always the case, polar deserts are typically found at higher latitudes. For a better understanding of the weather associated with these regions, let’s examine the Antarctic polar desert. In this area, the coldest months usually have a mean temperature of -29 to -30 degrees Celsius. When the weather warms up, and the warmest month of the year rolls around, the temperature remains in the range of a few degrees Celsius to approximately -1 degree Celsius.

In terms of precipitation, the Antarctic polar desert receives less than 40 millimeters per year. Furthermore, humidity during summer months ranges from 45 to 80 per cent. Surface liquid water is basically non-existent, except for a few hypersaline lakes that resist freezing.

Interesting fact: every polar desert region goes through a period of time, lasting nine to ten months, in which there is no sunlight.

Arctic - by Samantha Crimmin

Arctic polar deserts versus Antarctic polar deserts?

One polar desert is the same as the next, right? Not exactly. As you compare the polar desert in the Arctic to that in Antarctica, several differences come to light.


The topography of the Arctic polar desert is defined as tundra, glaciers, and snow. Here are some key points in regards to the region:

  • Approximately five per cent of the ground is covered in plant matter
  • Home to approximately 350 vascular species
  • Shrubs range from five to 100 centimeters in height, with forbs not reaching any higher than 10 centimeters

Svalbard - by Samantha Crimmin


The topography of the Antarctic polar desert is also defined as tundra, glaciers, and snow, however, there are some distinct features of the area:

  • The majority of Antarctica is polar desert
  • High wind speed and aridity create hypersaline lakes - Antarctica is home to the largest saline lake on Earth: Don Juan Pond
  • Up until extremophile organisms were found in the region in the 1970s, it was believed that the Antarctic was free of organisms

Photo credit: Tiffany Merritt

Visiting and Exploring Polar Deserts

As noted earlier, the Arctic and Antarctica are home to the world’s only polar deserts. Anybody who visits either region is in for the trip of a lifetime, as a polar desert provides a unique experience.

If you plan on taking this type of trip, it is important to be prepared for any and all weather conditions. For example, the weather in the coastal regions of Antarctica can quickly change. Dressing in layers will prepare you for just about anything that comes your way. Here is a list of essentials:

  • Waterproof boots
  • Parka
  • Waterproof over-pants
  • Gloves
  • Hat and scarf
  • Socks (long wool works best)
  • Outer clothing, such as wool or fleece sweaters
  • Base layers
  • Shoes (for use on the ship)
  • Backpack or knapsack for all your belongings

Read more about what to pack for visiting the Polar Regions here.

Our Tromso, Bear Island and Spitsbergen: Fjords and Bears expedition is just one fantastic opportunity to explore a polar desert. Give our experienced, knowledgeable Polar Travel Advisers a call at (888) 892-0073 to learn more about polar deserts and how to visit one!

Previous Article
World Penguin Day: Fun Penguin Facts You Need To Know
World Penguin Day: Fun Penguin Facts You Need To Know

April 25 is World Penguin Day!  This is one of two dates set aside on the Quark Expeditions calendar to cel...

Next Article
Hunting for 90 degrees North at Barneo Ice Camp
Hunting for 90 degrees North at Barneo Ice Camp

Want to visit the North Pole, but short on time? Spend a night in a working Russian scientific research bas...

Plan your polar adventure

Get Our Brochure