Misplaced Deserts Around the World

The Only Thing Stranger Than a Desert in Japan Is One in Poland

When you think of deserts, the usual suspects – the Sahara, the Mojave and the Gobi – spring to mind. If you're getting technical, you might also consider places like Siberia, whose low precipitation categorizes it as a desert, lack of cacti notwithstanding.

What would you say if you learned desert terrain existed in Japan? What about Poland? Brazil with its vastness and biodiversity might be less surprising, but what about France? The U.S. state of Maine, of all places? Believe it or not, all of these locations have deserts!

  • 01 of 05

    Tottori Sand Dunes in Japan

    Japan Tottori Sand Dunes
    Robert Schrader

    Japan is one of the most delightfully weird places in the world, and if you've been there, you know that almost anything is possible. Still, it's hard to grasp the fact that a small desert – around 10 miles by two miles – sits on the northern coast of Honshu Island, approximately five hours from Tokyo by train. Known as the Tottori Sand Dunes for its proximity to the small city of Totorri, the Japanese desert formed approximately 1,000 years ago, as a result of sediment deposits from the Sendai River being blown back up to the shore by a freak sea wind.

  • 02 of 05

    Poland's Błędów Desert

    Bledow Desert Poland
    Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons

    To be sure, the fact that a desert exists in Poland is much stranger than one existing in Japan. Located in the Polish region of Upper Silesia, Błędów Desert is central Europe's largest accumulation of free sand. It's been charming locals and passers by with its strangeness for as long as records have been kept, having been deposited thousands of years ago in the wake of a melting glacier

  • 03 of 05

    Lençóis Maranhenses in Brazil

    Lençóis Maranhenses
    Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons

    One important difference between Brazil's misplaced desert, the Lençóis Maranhenses, and those listed above it, is its size. While Tottori Sand Dunes and the Błędów Desert are both quite small (~20 square miles and ~12 square miles, respectively), the Lençóis Maranhenses occupies more than 600 square miles in northeastern Brazil, approximately 8 hours east of the city of Fortaleza. Plus, it's the only desert on this list with oases – during the rainy season, depressions between the dunes fill with water – which has made it an increasingly popular tourist attraction in South America.

  • 04 of 05

    France's Dune du Pilat

    Dune du Pilat
    Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons

    In terms of surface area, France's Dune du Pilat, located around 40 miles from Bordeaux along the country's southwestern coast, is closer to the misplaced deserts of Poland and Japan than the one in Brazil. Where the Dune du Pilat, which is Europe's largest sand dune, stands out is in terms of its height: It towers more than 35 feet above the North Atlantic Ocean. The dune is currently "growing" landward, although increasingly strong storms in recent years have damaged it.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Desert of Maine

    Desert of Maine
    Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons

    The Desert of Maine is one of the strangest places in the United States. Like the Polish desert, the Desert of Maine was left in the wake of a melting glacier, although unlike any of the other deserts on this list, its expansion was caused by human action. Specifically, overgrazing by sheep, which led to soil erosion and the formation of an entire "desert" in just 200 years.

As the world continues to warm and precipitation patterns begin to shift, we could see deserts pop up in more unexpected locations around the globe. Of course, even with dramatic climate change this will take thousands or even millions of years, but who knows – maybe your hometown could be in the desert one day?