Deserts of the World Australian Desert

About the Australian desert or Outback, size, history, and geography of the second-largest desert in the world.

DESERTS

AUSTRALIAN DESERT

The Australian Desert, second largest in the world, comprises 1.3 million sq. mi. and occupies 44% of the continent, in the interior. Known as the Outback, it is actually a collection of smaller deserts.

The Australian Desert averages 5 in. of rainfall a year, but some parts of central Australia get rain only once or twice in a decade. Overall, it is a grass desert, not intensely arid like the Sahara. Hot air masses are primarily responsible for keeping moist air from penetrating the desert, but the low eastern highlands--called the Great Dividing Range--create a rain shadow and wring the moisture from southeastern trade winds.

The Australian Desert has many dry lakes, or basins, which fill with water after rare deluges. The Eyre Basin, the lowest point on the continent (46 ft. below sea level), covers over 1/2 million sq. mi. of central Australia; twice a century it is flooded with river drainage. The desert has many longitudinal sand dunes, a number of them still developing. Large sections of the desert are "gibber plains" swept clean of sand by hard winds and left as a pavement of tightly packed stones. Parts of the desert still bear the scars of Paleozoic glaciers.

The introduction of rabbits to Australia by English settlers in 1859 nearly ruined the desert. They bred rapidly, stripped the Outback of its grasses, and left only sand to be whipped up by high winds. Not till 1950, when a deadly myxomatosis virus was brought to Australia, were these rabbits brought under control.

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