Middle East – 3.1.1 A Deluge of DESERTS


Okay, let’s now look at the unifying homogeneous factors that pull together all of the states and parts of states that we’re clumping together as this regional unit called the Middle East. And when we ask most people, “Hey, what do you think of when you think of the term Middle East?” Almost everybody at some point will say, “It’s dry. [laughs] Yeah, it’s just one big old desert from stem to stern, sand dunes everywhere, people riding camels to work.” [laughs] Is it dry? Well mostly, it is. It’s actually not a bad stereotype. It’s a fairly succinct and tidy and nice trait that is true across a vast portion of this very big region. Having said that, let’s look at this and some more detail. Let’s look at the physical world of the Middle East to set the stage for the humans that habitate in it because this indeed is a very dry and arid part of the planet and that dryness and aridity does indeed affect how the humans live there, what they do for a living, their means of substenance, their means of sustenance, their economic systems their cultural systems, their whole evolutionary story in and of itself. And dryness and aridity indeed to this day are still affecting the events of the Middle East, but aridity and dryness and climate vegetation which are all related is only part of painting the physical portrait of the Middle East. Let’s also look at the terrain, the shape of the land the mountains, some water resources, some strategic named waterways, and even a few other geographic features of note that will help you be a better globally informed citizen and all-around smarter peep and we’ll conclude this physical section with the impacts that the natural arid world has had on the humans that habitate there again historically, but right on into today’s world. So before we get to this big old sand dune covered region, we should actually talk about the size first. How big is this region? Let’s start with size because I believe a lot of American students and maybe world students are misinformed of the scale of this place cuz it’s big. And they’re misinformed. It’s not even entirely your fault. It’s partly due to the fact that the most popular K through 12 classroom map of the world stuck on the walls across this great nation and the world are of a particular map projection called Mercator. It’s the most popular world map. It shows the whole world with nice straight lines and all the continents. And anytime you’re taking a three-dimensional object and pulling it apart and flattening it out to be on a two-dimensional piece of paper that you put on a wall you have to squeeze some things and bend some things and mathematically distort some things in order to make that happen and with Mercator what they distort is the size of the continents and countries and the way they do it mathematically is that they squeeze, the Mercator squeezes things near the Equator and as you get further away from the equator and closer to the poles it expands things out which is why most people think that Greenland near the North Pole is frickin huge, and they think Africa near the equator is kind of small when actually the inverse, the opposite is true. Africa’s second largest continent in the world after Asia and Greenland ain’t all that big. So let me break it down for you American-style, to give you a sense of how big the Middle East is because the Middle East is there in the middle of all this, part of Africa part of the Arabian Peninsula, so it gets squeezed as well on that Mercator projection. Breaking it down for you in American terms, if we took the classic core of the Middle East that I’ve already identified that being the entire Arabian Peninsula, all the states of the Arabian Peninsula, along with the bookends of Egypt and Iran and Turkey as a hat, if we superimposed that classic core onto the continental United States you’d see that they’re actually roughly the same size. The classic core is slightly smaller, about 90 percent the size of the continental continuous United States but it’s same for all practical purposes. It’s about the same. And from sea to shining sea in America it’s about 3,000 miles. So the classic core has got some girth to it. But of course hold on. We’re also including North Africa, so we have to add some more. And if you took the continental United States and superimposed it on North Africa, the whole 48 continuous would fit inside the Sahara Desert easily with some sand on the sides. So what you’re looking at when you are thinking Middle East from now on I want you to look at, “It’s kind of like two United States stuck side-by-side.” Imagine that, just in the Sahara Desert the whole continental US fits inside the Sahara Desert. Imagine getting in a car in New York and driving to LA and the entire time you’d be in the Sahara Desert. Does that set the scale for you? Mind-boggling. And then you stick another US over there to encapsulate the classic core. So depending on where you measure it from, Morocco to Iran, maybe five to six thousand miles wide. This is a significant pretty big region. This got a lot of desert. All right. Let’s get back to the desert now. Let’s get back to the shifting sands of the Sahara and talk about desert. Climatically speaking, this is definitely an arid part of the planet. Really, anywhere you go in the Middle East it’s either extremely arid, basic arid, or semi-arid. And big chunks of the Middle East region are what we call full-on deserts, okay? What does that mean? Let’s let’s tease out some details here. When we use the term desert, we are specifically referring to sections of the Earth’s surface that get less than, less than 250 millimeters of precipitation a year. For you English speakers that’s ten inches of precipitation or less. Oh, what’s precipitation you ask? Hopefully you’re not asking that. Precipitation is any water that falls from the sky. So rain, snow, sleet, or hail, or whatever else you got. If it’s water, and it falls out of the sky onto the land that’s precipitation. And deserts get less than 250 millimeters or ten inches per year. Now if we want to expand this definition a little bit to say, “Well, what’s a semi-arid region, then? Desert’s full-on arid. What’s semi arid?” Semi-arid is going to be places that get 250 millimeters to 500 millimeters of precipitation a year or 10 to 20 inches. There are some places of semi-arid that you might be familiar with. Mediterranean-style climates are what we would call chaparral, savanna, semi-arid places. Places like Sicily or coast of Italy or southern Spain. I think of southern Spain as semi-arid. Southern California semi-arid chaparral. One place in particular in the Middle East that you will know is the Sahel. It is semi-arid. The Sahel is this interesting band that separates– it’s a transition zone between the Sahara Desert and the tropical climates of sub-Sahara Africa, and it’s a unique transition zone in that it’s semi-arid steppe-like short grass. It’s moving from desert to tropical savanna style climates and biomes. You know think of The Lion King and giraffes and elephants and all that crap. So the Sahel is a band we’ll talk about in more detail later, but it is a semi-arid place just south of the Sahara Desert. But indeed we’re backing up and looking at the whole region. Most of it does fall into full-on arid or semi-arid categories. Don’t quote me on this on Jeopardy or anything, although it might be a test question. I’d say guesstimating we would say that the Middle East is roughly 80% full on arid desert. Named, full-on 80% desert. If you include semi-arid sections that number probably jumps to like 90 percent or 91 percent, maybe 92 percent. I don’t know. It’s a lot. So when we step back we say, “Hey wait a minute.” Everybody who thinks that the Middle East is dry, they’re right. It actually is. It’s a very good homogeneous trait that binds together most of the states, or big parts of the states. of the Middle East. Every single state that we’ve defined in our Middle Eastern unit has at least some desert and some of them are almost all desert, so it’s a pretty good trait, which pulls everybody together. Let’s talk about deserts for a bit more though because there is some other facts you need to know and some variation you need to know about as well. We said it’s based on precipitation and that’s it. We’re not talking about anything else. And if we’re looking at a world map like this one here we’ll see that about one-third of the entire land surface, not the oceans, one-third of the land surface of the planet is classified as arid or semi-arid. That’s 33% of land doesn’t grow that much vegetation. Ah, and that gets to my next point. What’s so crucial about picking up this number, 250 millimeters or 10 inches? It’s…this is… It’s not a make-or-break, but as a general rule if a place is getting less precipitation than that it’s not enough moisture to support plant life. It’ll support some depending on how much precipitation you’re getting, but as a general rule if we’re getting under 10 inches of rain a year you’re not gonna have even small grasses or any sort of small vegetation covering the entire area. That’s my general rule by the way. I say if you’re looking at a swath of landscape upon a mountain ridge, you can see a huge section of a place, and you’re trying to figure out is this full-on desert, or is it semi-arid the Boyer general rule is that if you just kind of measure it out, and if less than half of the area you’re looking at is covered with any sort of vegetation, be it grasses or tumbleweed or cacti, if less than half is covered with vegetation, it’s probably a desert. So if more than half is exposed sand or exposed dirt or exposed rock, it’s probably a desert. As you start to get over the 250 millimeters of precipitation a year, well that’s enough precipitation that now you’re gonna have perhaps 50% or more of your landscape is covered with some sort of vegetation. And the more vegetative cover that you see. the more of the area more the surface that is covered with plant life. probably means it’s getting more and more and more precipitation. If you get over 20 inches of precipitation a year then you can start supporting small trees. And if you get over 30 inches of precipitation now you can start supporting bigger forests The more moisture you add to a place the more bigger plants can grow. Back to desert. They don’t get much moisture. They don’t grow much stuff. Why is that so crucial for understanding the evolution of the Middle East? Well if 80% of the entire region can’t support a lot of plant life that includes plant life that humans like. We call it food. We call them crops. So think about that when we’re trying to understand this place. 80 percent probably can’t sustain any sort of crops and humans need crops. There’s one other thing you need to know about deserts though. Again, for the hundredth time they’re only defined by the amount of precipitation they get per year. We haven’t said anything about temperature. We haven’t said anything. I’ve never referred to any numbers with temperature. And I’m not going to because it doesn’t matter with deserts. Deserts can be any temperatures at all it’s all about the precipitation. There are hot deserts on the planet and those are the ones you think of when you think of the Middle East. You’re like, “Ooh yeah, walking across the sun-baked sands of some big sand dune, and you’re gonna die of thirst and see mirages and get all wacky in your head.” But there are cold deserts too, my friends, and in fact the largest true desert on planet Earth is Antarctica. Yeah. Antarctica is confusing to folks because it is the biggest desert and people are like, “Why? It’s not a desert. It’s cold.” Doesn’t matter. It’s not about temperature. And then people say, “Okay, but I’m still confused. Antarctica is covered with ice. How can you say a place is a desert that’s covered with water? It’s frozen water, but it’s water.” Remember we’re talking about the definition being how much precipitation falls per year. The tricky thing about Antarctica is one, it’s cold, but two, it doesn’t get that much precipitation. But what does fall as snow and ice and sleet, it stays there. It doesn’t go anywhere. It never warms up, it never evaporates, so it just hangs out. So you may only get two or three inches of precipitation a year and it’s been getting that two or three inches of precipitation a year for like millennia and it just keeps stacking up. So that’s what’s confusing about Antarctica as the world’s biggest true desert. It’s cold. It’s got water on it, but it’s still a desert. But we don’t care about Antarctica. Nobody lives there. We’re talking about the Middle East. Let’s zoom back into the Middle East from this world map of arid and semi-arid regions and we see that ah, an Antarctica may be cold, but now we’re getting into hot deserts. And indeed as you go into the Middle East it becomes apparent that a whole big bunch of this place qualifies as being true full-on, fiercely aflame and alarmingly hot and dry desert, some of which are record holders in their own right. And what am I suggesting by that? Dude, the Middle East, it’s mostly desert. It’s got some extremes of desert for the planet. Here we go. Here are some records of note for you to consider. Antarctica is the biggest desert on Planet Earth. Got it. Who cares, not going there. The Sahara Desert which you now know is about as big as the continental United States is the second-biggest desert on Planet Earth and is the largest hot desert on the planet. And it’s big. But it’s not alone. The Dasht-e Kavir aka the Kavir Desert aka the Great Salt Desert. And the Kavir-e Lut, aka the Lut Desert are both in central eastern Iran. I think they are the 23rd and 24th biggest deserts on Planet Earth. But that’s not why they’re record-holders. The Lut Desert in particular in Eastern Iran has a distinction of having the hottest recorded temperature in the history of humankind. It’s so hot that they can’t put instruments there because it would just melt, I guess. But they use some satellite imagery and sensors from space and outside the region and they determine that parts of the Lut Desert in Iran have hit 70.5 degrees Celsius. I just impressed all the Europeans who are listening to this. All the Americans are like, “What’s that mean?” That means 159 degrees Fahrenheit. A hundred and fifty nine. Whoo! Better pack in some refreshments if you go into the Lut because you’re going down for the desert count. Let’s look at some other deserts of note though. The Syrian Desert is…uh, where would that be at? Go figure. Syria. It’s kind of a continuous, big, dry arid area in the Arabian Peninsula that’s tied to the Arabian Desert as well. So combo Arabian, and Syrian Desert up north of the Arabian Desert, it really blankets the whole classic core of the Middle East and certainly the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian Desert is the world’s third largest desert. Oh! Hold the phone there. So Antarctica is number one, but we have number two and number three largest deserts in the world both in this region and one of my favorite named deserts on Planet Earth, one of my favorite named Geographic entities, period, is a subsection of the Arabian Desert called the Rub al Khali. It’s such a great name. I want to live in the Rub al-Khali except I wouldn’t live there long because it’s called The Empty Quarter because nobody lives there because they can’t. It’s so hard to live there. It’s the largest erg in the world. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but it means the largest full true sand dune type of desert. It’s pretty much completely unpopulated, it takes up a big section of central and southern Saudi Arabia and some other Arabian states. It was only crossed very recently–it was only traversed by humans that we know of here in just the last couple of years where a South African team did it as a stunt. No one’s been crazy enough to even try it in history before because it gets on average high temps of 130 degrees Fahrenheit pretty much all the time and gets less than one point two inches of rain per year. This place is so dry, so tough, so formidable, so impossible, so hot that it actually serves as a natural boundary or break between Saudi Arabia and the states to its south being Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. The Rub al Khali, Empty Quarter. That’s just a wrap up of some of the crazier extreme name deserts. There’s a whole bunch more. And as you’ve hopefully seen from some of these pics I’ve shown you already, one should not assume that the word desert automatically equals sand. No. Desert’s just precip. Doesn’t say anything about the source material or the landscape or anything that’s there. There are many many different manifestations of what deserts may look like. Remember, desert’s just about precip, not the terrain, the soil, the bedrock or anything else. Much like the Wonder Twins of the Justice League, deserts can take the shape of and form of many different types of landscapes across the Middle East region, and the world, but the Middle East has got a great variety of them. Anybody know the Wonder Twins? Wonder Twin powers, activate! Let’s make a desert! Some of the deserts that you might see in this region if you go travel in it are the classic full-on what we actually think of deserts is sandy, yeah. They’re all filled with sand. You know what sand is. You’ve seen it on the beach. And if you have a section of desert particularly the Middle East that is full on sand and has these mountain type things called sand dunes then you’re in a geologic formation called an erg. Ah, I love erg. E-R-G. You won’t hear this anywhere outside of a geology class which is why I’m feeding you the good info here in a geography class. So ergs are otherwise known as sand seas, oceans of sand. Why would they use this term sea and ocean? Because it’s like it has waves. And what are the waves? The sand dunes. Ergs are huge. They can be small, but they’re usually fairly big significant sized sections of the desert and there’s a whole bunch of named ones across the Saharan Desert that are sand dune areas that are windswept and wind is a critical component of it because it’s the wind that shapes the dune if it predominates from one direction. So it keeps blowing it up and building it up until it’s a mountain and they kind of fall off the other side. They have virtually no vegetative cover at all as you can figure. They’re pretty arid. It’s a desert, but also the shifting sands don’t allow for a lot of stuff to grow. The depth of sands in some of these Sahara ergs are 21 to 43 metres deep, that’s 69 or 70 to 140 feet deep. In some of these Saharan ergs some of the dunes created by the windswept motion can top 500 metres or higher, that’s 1,600 feet. Dudes, dudettes. That’s like an average peak in the Appalachian system in eastern United States. Those are mountains. But it’s an erg. It’s a sand dune. But that’s not the only type of desert that you will see manifest itself in the Middle East. You can have full on rocky deserts. And rocks can be small, can be pebble size, can be cobble size, can be bigger full-on boulder sized strewn across landscapes. Heck, even Mars is a true desert. The Martian landscape is mostly a rocky type of desert. And there are mountainous rocky landscape deserts across different parts of the Middle East of different cobble size and different stone size. There are also kind of bare rocky plateaus or stony, or sandy plains, and don’t forget dirt. Some of these places have dirt, too. You be like, “Well it’s dirt, that means something could grow in it.” Yeah, it could if it got enough precipitation, but it doesn’t. So you can have dirt deserts and combination dirt-sand deserts, and combination sand-dirt deserts, and combination dirt-sand-rock-pebble conglomerate deserts. And actually if you can get some these rocky, cobble-y, gravelly type deserts, they conglomerate and the heat bakes them together and they actually form a flat stony plane that’s sometimes referred to as desert pavement. Yeah, desert pavement like a road, like asphalt because if it’s a small enough pebble it like forms like a surface top, [claps] hardpan surface top. And our other crazy deserts will be complete huge vast sand plains, big flat areas, and some that are salt flats. Evaporation pulls everything out and salt crystallizes in a huge salt plane. So great variety of desert landscapes across the Middle East. And yes the Middle East is maybe 80% desert, maybe 90% arid and semi-arid combo. But let’s talk about some exceptions now. Exception time. I said 90% of the Middle East is arid to semi-arid. That leaves 10% that’s something else. And the exceptions to the arid rule across the Middle East are actually quite important, so we should point them out. Exception number one, the Fertile Crescent. Okay? Yeah, I already pointed that out in the intro to this whole Middle Eastern region. The Fertile Crescent is that well-watered birthplace of civilization itself that runs from the basins of the Euphrates and Tigris River systems and all their tributaries which flow from modern-day Turkey through modern-day Iraq. And it’s a boomerang shape that encompasses all those river systems and boomerangs over to include parts of Syria, virtually all of Israel and Palestine, Lebanon, big sections of Jordan. And we could push this if you want to a little further to include the Nile River down there in Egypt. These are well watered places that can support much more vegetation like food. Food’s what you need to have civilization. See how that works? The Fertile Crescent. And by the way another name for the Fertile Crescent is the Levant The Levant, from classic times. This place has been habitated by humans for a very long time even though it’s in the Middle East because it is well watered. Exception number two to the overly arid rule are some of the coastal fringes across the Middle East. in coastal areas, particularly coastal areas along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, they have a climate or biome regime that we call Mediterranean. [laughs] See how trick this stuff is? Mediterranean climate is awesome. People love it. Humans pack into Mediterranean style biomes all over Planet Earth because they’re places like Sicily, southern Italy, southern Spain, Southern California, and these are areas that are… they have hot dry summers, but mild, cooler winters and wetter winter. So they get precipitation and enough precipitation to grow more stuff. What stuff? Food type stuff. So you have the Mediterranean climates are awesome because they’re mild throughout the year or milder than surrounding areas and they have enough precipitation to grow lots of stuff. You maybe even heard the Mediterranean diet. It’s like the best diet humans should ever be on. You should be on it right now if you’re not already. And it’s named for the Mediterranean climate, the biomes and what they grow there, and what they’ve classically eaten there. Things like citrus: lemons, limes, oranges. But wheat and other cereal grains which were cultivated originally in Mesopotamia also moved over to the Mediterranean. So you got great grains that you make breads into, but they also grow olives there? Ah! Olives. There’s so many varieties olives. And grapes. Oh! And we eat grapes, but more often not we turn them into wine. And they also grow dates and palm trees with palm oil and figs. You’ve gotta try figs. You’ve gotta try a fig. You got to try a date. You got to try a fig as well. All sorts of great nuts that you like, different veggies. Oh and fish. Oh the fish from the Mediterranean region. It’s like the most healthy diet ever and it’s awesome. And it’s the Mediterranean diet name for the place and the climate that is conducive for growing these things. But back to the Middle East. What parts of the Middle East have this super-awesome climate? The coastal fringes of the Med, obviously places like Morocco. All along the coastline in northern Morocco is Mediterranean. Parts of Northern Algeria, big sections of Israel, Palestine, big parts of Lebanon, coastal fringes of Turkey, all have this great climate type. And you’ll even find it scattered in pieces over on the arabian peninsula and coastal fringes of the UAE and Oman and even Yemen. Yemen has some mountains, we’re gonna get to those in just a second, that people often forget about, but those mountains jutting up capture some of the moisture coming in off of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea and moisture falls as precipitation. So they have some of this awesome Mediterranean climate in southern, southwestern Yemen. However over there in the Arabian Peninsula for climatic reasons I won’t get into right now it can still get really hot there. So even in those areas that might be called Mediterranean, they can still, in Yemen and Oman and UAE, get summer highs of 120 degrees or 50 degrees Celsius, so still significantly hot. My last exception to the desert rule, to the arid homogeneous trait of the Middle East, is that despite most of the entire region being arid or semi-arid and mostly hot, in the wintertime in this region some mountain villagers may actually experience freezing temperatures and snow. What? What? It snows in the Middle East? Yep! In the mountainous areas of Morocco, in northern Iraq where the Kurds are, and specifically what I want you to jot down, Turkey and Iran. These last two states I just named are particular exceptions in that they have significant sized well-watered areas and get snow in certain parts of their mountainous regions. If you look at Turkey, more of Turkey is a well watered region than not. Again the headwater is in a whole bunch of river systems. Tributaries to the Tigris and Euphrates start in Turkey. It’s a well watered place and it gets precipitation in lots of it’s Black Sea Coast and the west coast of Turkey. Iran is the one that flabbergasts most people because again we think, “Oh Middle East is a desert.” Mostly true. And we think of Iran. It’s Middle East so it’s mostly desert. Look at northwestern Iran. It’s a very well watered place. The coastal regions of the Caspian Sea, that whole northwestern quadrant of Iran gets enough precipitation actually to have full-on fields of grain, short and tall grasslands and forests. Forested areas of Iran and big chunks of Turkey are forested as well. These are places that get significant amounts of precipitation. They’re neither arid nor semi-arid. They’re fairly well watered and to close, they get snow. How is that…The Middle East getting snow? This is gonna be a shocker to you, but Iran has a vibrant and growing skiing industry. Snow, you need snow for skiing. skiing in Iran. What? Yes. Why would that be? Why would Turkey and Iran in particular be different and get cold enough to get snow in parts of it? Maybe the terrain has something to do with it. [laughs] You’re right. Maybe it’s something about mountains. So let’s wrap up this section and head up the slopes of some Middle Eastern mountains now.

2 thoughts on “Middle East – 3.1.1 A Deluge of DESERTS

  1. Wonder twin powers activate! Form of desert life. Form of …. nearly non-existent precipitation.

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