The Sahara has one of the harshest climates in the world. Located in the trade winds belt, the region is subject to winds that are frequently strong and that blow constantly from the northeast between a subtropical high-pressure cell and an equatorial low-pressure cell. As air moves downward from the high-pressure into the low-pressure cell, it becomes warmer and drier. The desiccating and dust-laden winds are sometimes felt north and south of the desert, where they are variously known as sirocco, khamsin, simoom, and harmattan. The northern slopes of the Atlas Mts. intercept most of the moisture from winds blowing inshore from the Mediterranean Sea.
Border zones on the north and south, where the desert merges with the steppe, receive about 10 in. (25 cm) of rain a year with some seasonal regularity, but over most of the region rainfall is sparser, with an average annual total of less than 5 in. (12.7 cm); rainfall is usually torrential when it occurs after long dry periods that sometimes last for years. The region's low relative humidity rarely exceeds 30% and is often in the 4% to 5% range.
Daytime temperatures are high, averaging 86°F (30°C) and often over 100°F (37.5°C). Heat loss is rapid at night, and the diurnal range can be as great as 70°F (38°C). Freezing temperatures are not uncommon at night from December to February.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.