Sand covers only about 20 percent of Earth's deserts. Most of the sand is in sand sheets and sand seas--vast regions of undulating dunes resembling ocean waves "frozen" in an instant of time.
Nearly 50 percent of desert surfaces are plains where eolian deflation--removal of fine-grained material by the wind--has exposed loose gravels consisting predominantly of pebbles but with occasional cobbles.
The remaining surfaces of arid lands are composed of exposed bedrock outcrops, desert soils, and fluvial deposits including alluvial fans, playas, desert lakes, and oases. Bedrock outcrops commonly occur as small mountains surrounded by extensive erosional plains.
Oases are vegetated areas moistened by springs, wells, or by irrigation. Many are artificial. Oases are often the only places in deserts that support crops and permanent habitation.
Soils that form in arid climates are predominantly mineral soils with low organic content. The repeated accumulation of water in some soils causes distinct salt layers to form. Calcium carbonate precipitated from solution may cement sand and gravel into hard layers called "calcrete" that form layers up to 50 meters thick.
Caliche is a reddish-brown to white layer found in many desert soils. Caliche commonly occurs as nodules or as coatings on mineral grains formed by the complicated interaction between water and carbon dioxide released by plant roots or by decaying organic material.
Most desert plants are drought- or salt-tolerant, such as xerophytes. Some store water in their leaves, roots, and stems. Other desert plants have long tap roots that penetrate the water table, anchor the soil, and control erosion. The stems and leaves of some plants lower the surface velocity of sand-carrying winds and protect the ground from erosion.
Deserts typically have a plant cover that is sparse but enormously diverse. The Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest has the most complex desert vegetation on Earth. The giant saguaro cacti provide nests for desert birds and serve as "trees" of the desert. Saguaro grow slowly but may live 200 years. When 9 years old, they are about 15 centimeters high. After about 75 years, the cacti develop their first branches. When fully grown, saguaro are 15 meters tall and weigh as much as 10 tons. They dot the Sonoran and reinforce the general impression of deserts as cacti-rich land.
Although cacti are often thought of as characteristic desert plants, other types of plants have adapted well to the arid environment. They include the pea family and sunflower family. Cold deserts have grasses and shrubs as dominant vegetation.
Rain does fall occasionally in deserts, and desert storms are often violent. A record 44 millimeters of rain once fell within 3 hours in the Sahara. Large Saharan storms may deliver up to 1 millimeter per minute. Normally dry stream channels, called arroyos or wadis, can quickly fill after heavy rains, and flash floods make these channels dangerous.
Though little rain falls in deserts, deserts receive runoff from ephemeral, or short-lived, streams fed by rain and snow from adjacent highlands. These streams fill the channel with a slurry of mud and commonly transport considerable quantities of sediment for a day or two. Although most deserts are in basins with closed, or interior drainage, a few deserts are crossed by 'exotic' rivers that derive their water from outside the desert. Such rivers infiltrate soils and evaporate large amounts of water on their journeys through the deserts, but their volumes are such that they maintain their continuity. The Nile River, the Colorado River, and the Yellow River are exotic rivers that flow through deserts to deliver their sediments to the sea.
Lakes form where rainfall or meltwater in interior drainage basins is sufficient. Desert lakes are generally shallow, temporary, and salty. Because these lakes are shallow and have a low bottom gradient, wind stress may cause the lake waters to move over many square kilometers. When small lakes dry up, they leave a salt crust or hardpan. The flat area of clay, silt, or sand encrusted with salt that forms is known as a playa. There are more than a hundred playas in North American deserts. Most are relics of large lakes that existed during the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. Lake Bonneville was a 52,000-square-kilometer lake almost 300 meters deep in Utah, Nevada, and Idaho during the Ice Age. Today the remnants of Lake Bonneville include Utah's Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, and Sevier Lake. Because playas are arid land forms from a wetter past, they contain useful clues to climatic change.
The flat terrains of hardpans and playas make them excellent race tracks and natural runways for airplanes and spacecraft. Ground-vehicle speed records are commonly established on Bonneville Speedway, a race track on the Great Salt Lake hardpan. Space shuttles land on Rogers Lake Playa at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Some mineral deposits are formed, improved, or preserved by geologic processes that occur in arid lands as a consequence of climate. Ground water leaches ore minerals and redeposits them in zones near the water table. This leaching process concentrates these minerals as ore that can be mined.
Evaporation in arid lands enriches mineral accumulation in their lakes. Playas may be sources of mineral deposits formed by evaporation. Water evaporating in closed basins precipitates minerals such as gypsum, salts (including sodium nitrate and sodium chloride), and borates. The minerals formed in these evaporite deposits depend on the composition and temperature of the saline waters at the time of deposition.
Significant evaporite resources occur in the Great Basin Desert of the United States, mineral deposits made forever famous by the "20-mule teams" that once hauled borax-laden wagons from Death Valley to the railroad. Boron, from borax and borate evaporites, is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of glass, ceramics, enamel, agricultural chemicals, water softeners, and pharmaceuticals. Borates are mined from evaporite deposits at Searles Lake, California, and other desert locations. The total value of chemicals that have been produced from Searles Lake substantially exceeds $1 billion.
The Atacama Desert of South America is unique among the deserts of the world in its great abundance of saline minerals. Sodium nitrate has been mined for explosives and fertilizer in the Atacama since the middle of the 19th century. Nearly 3 million metric tons were mined during World War I.
Valuable minerals located in arid lands include copper in the United States, Chile, Peru, and Iran; iron and lead-zinc ore in Australia; chromite in Turkey; and gold, silver, and uranium deposits in Australia and the United States. Nonmetallic mineral resources and rocks such as beryllium, mica, lithium, clays, pumice, and scoria also occur in arid regions. Sodium carbonate, sulfate, borate, nitrate, lithium, bromine, iodine, calcium, and strontium compounds come from sediments and near-surface brines formed by evaporation of inland bodies of water, often during geologically recent times.
The Green River Formation of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah contains alluvial fan deposits and playa evaporites created in a huge lake whose level fluctuated for millions of years. Economically significant deposits of trona, a major source of sodium compounds, and thick layers of oil shale were created in the arid environment.
Some of the more productive petroleum areas on Earth are found in arid and semiarid regions of Africa and the Mideast, although the oil reservoirs were originally formed in shallow marine environments. Recent climate change has placed these reservoirs in an arid environment.
Other oil reservoirs, however, are presumed to be eolian in origin and are presently found in humid environments. The Rotliegendes, a hydrocarbon reservoir in the North Sea, is associated with extensive evaporite deposits. Many of the major U.S. hydrocarbon resources may come from eolian sands. Ancient alluvial fan sequences may also be hydrocarbon reservoirs.