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GCSE Geography | Challenges in the Western Desert (Hot Deserts 6)

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas

Last updated 19 Jul 2023

The Western Desert in the USA is made up of three different hot deserts - the Mojave Desert, part of the Sonoran Desert and part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The Western Desert is in south-western USA - it covers 200,000 km² and spans parts of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Population density in the desert is low - most people live in the cities such as Phoenix in Arizona and Las Vegas in Nevada.

The harsh conditions in the USA's Western Desert make life very challenging.

Low population density in the Western Desert

The harsh conditions in the Western Desert have made life difficult for many centuries - for traditional Native American communities and for settlers more recently. There are many areas across the region that are very sparsely populated or have no settled populations at all, for example Death Valley in the Mohave Desert. Here temperatures can be around 50°C in the summer, which barely sustains plant life, let alone people and animals (hence it's name).

The Western Desert is made up of the Mohave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts - in each of these areas indigenous people settled near rivers or aquifers so they had a source of water for drinking and to sustain their subsistence farming.

Inaccessibility in the Western Desert

The population density is very low in parts of the Western Desert - this had led to a lack of road infrastructure investment, meaning that in parts of the desert there are very few surfaced roads. The inaccessibility means it is difficult for communities and economic activities to set up and establish, and the lack of communities or economic activities taking place, means there is little motivation to invest in road construction.

It is extremely difficult to travel in some areas in Nevada, north of Las Vegas, however many tourists like to explore this area of wilderness, so have to find their own way using minor roads and rough tracks. Even when roads are okay the extreme heat makes driving in the desert dangerous due to the high risk of breaking down, and people have died from dehydration in the Mohave Desert after driving off road and becoming stranded.

However because Las Vegas attracts millions of tourists each year there has been investment to improve accessibility. Las Vegas originally grew in the 19th century as it was seen as a good location for a train station, which then meant that bars, shops and hotels were built. This then led to the construction of better roads, and then airports linking the area with major global cities.

Living with the extreme climate in the Western Desert

Indigenous Native American communities adapted to the extreme heat in the desert but building homes with thick clay walls, which kept them cool during the day and warm at night.

Later settlers and migrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries also made adaptations to their homes to help them survive the harsh climate - they build homes with flat roofs that could collect rainwater to be recycled, with small windows which reduced the sunlight able to get in, thus keeping internal temperatures low. They also painted walls white to reflect solar radiation, to keep buildings cool - which is something that we still see in hot countries today (for example, across the Mediterranean). Settlers also wore wide-brimmed hats to keep the sun out of their eyes and to prevent sunburn.

Today water shortages in the area have had an impact on landscaping choices - many people have chosen to use drought-resistant plants in their gardens (known as desert landscaping), or have replaced grass with artificial alternatives, in gardens but also on sports pitches.

Challenges in the Western Desert | AQA GCSE Geography | Hot Deserts 6

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