A region is arid when it is characterized by a severe lack of available water, to the extent of hindering or preventing the growth and development of plant and animal life. Environments subject to arid climates tend to lack vegetation and are called xeric or desertic. Most "arid" climates surround the equator; these places include most of Africa and parts of South America, Central America and Australia.
The expression 'available water' refers to water in the soil in excess to the wilting point. The air over a hot desert may actually contain substantial amounts of water vapor but that water may not be generally accessible to plants, except for very specialized organisms (such as some species of lichen). Plants that have adapted to grow in arid environments are called xerophytes. 'Lack of water' refers to use by plants. The water that is actually present in the environment may be sufficient for some species or usages (such as climax vegetation), and grossly insufficient for others. Aridity, the characteristic nature of an arid climate, may thus depend on the use of the land. Regards to the presence of life, what is more important than the degree of rainfall is the fraction of precipitation that is not quickly lost through evaporation or runoff. It can also be characterized by having more evapotranspiration than precipitation. Attempts to quantitatively describe the degree of aridity of a place has often led to the development of aridity indexes. There is no universal agreement on the precise boundaries between classes such as 'hyper-arid', 'arid', 'semi-arid', etc.
Although different classification schemes and maps differ in their details, there is a general agreement about the fact that large areas of the Earth are arid. These include the hot deserts located broadly in sub-tropical regions, where the accumulation of water is largely prevented by either low precipitations, or high evaporation, or both, as well as cold deserts near the poles, where water may be permanently locked in solid forms (snow and ice). Other arid regions include areas located in the rain shadows of major mountain ranges or along coastal regions affected by significant upwelling (such as the Atacama Desert).
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The distribution of aridity observed at any one point in time is largely the result of the general circulation of the atmosphere. The latter does change significantly over time through climate change.For example temperature increase (by 1.5 – 2.1 per cent) across the Nile Basin over the next 30-40 years could make the region arid to semiarid, resulting in a significant reduction in agricultural land. In addition, changes in land use can result in greater demands on soil water and induce a higher degree of aridity. See aridification.
- Griffiths, J. F. (1985) 'Climatology', Chapter 2 in Handbook of Applied Meteorology, Edited by David D. Houghton, John Wiley and Sons, ISBN 0-471-08404-2.
- Durrenberger, R. W. (1987) 'Arid Climates', article in The Encyclopedia of Climatology, p. 92-101, Edited by J. E. Oliver and R. W. Fairbridge, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, ISBN 0-87933-009-0.
- Stadler, S. J (1987) 'Aridity Indexes', article in The Encyclopedia of Climatology, p. 102-107, Edited by J. E. Oliver and R. W. Fairbridge, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, ISBN 0-87933-009-0.
- Blue Peace for the Nile Report, 2009, Strategic Foresight Group