Deserts are formed by weathering processes as large variations in temperature between day and night put strains on the rocks which consequently break in pieces. Although rain seldom occurs in deserts, there are occasional downpours that can result in flash floods. Rain falling on hot rocks can cause them to shatter and the resulting fragments and rubble strewn over the desert floor is further eroded by the wind. This picks up particles of sand and dust and wafts them aloft in sand or dust storms. Wind-blown sand grains striking any solid object in their path can abrade the surface. Rocks are smoothed down, and the wind sorts sand into uniform deposits. The grains end up as level sheets of sand or are piled high in billowing sand dunes. Other deserts are flat, stony plains where all the fine material has been blown away and the surface consists of a mosaic of smooth stones. These areas are known as desert pavements and little further erosion takes place. Other desert features include rock outcrops, exposed bedrock and clays once deposited by flowing water. Temporary lakes may form and salt pans may be left when waters evaporate. There may be underground sources of water in the form of springs and seepages from aquifers. Where these are found, oases can occur.
Plants and animals living in the desert need special adaptations to survive in the harsh environment. Plants tend to be tough and wiry with small or no leaves, water-resistant cuticles and often spines to deter herbivory. Some annual plants germinate, bloom and die in the course of a few weeks after rainfall while other long-lived plants survive for years and have deep root systems able to tap underground moisture. Animals need to keep cool and find enough food and water to survive. Many are nocturnal and stay in the shade or underground during the heat of the day. They tend to be efficient at conserving water, extracting most of their needs from their food and concentrating their urine. Some animals remain in a state of dormancy for long periods, ready to become active again when the rare rains fall. They then reproduce rapidly while conditions are favorable before returning to dormancy.
People have struggled to live in deserts and the surrounding semi-arid lands for millennia. Nomads have moved their flocks and herds to wherever grazing is available and oases have provided opportunities for a more settled way of life. The cultivation of semi-arid regions encourages erosion of soil and is one of the causes of increased desertification. Desert farming is possible with the aid of irrigation and the Imperial Valley in California provides an example of how previously barren land can be made productive by the import of water from an outside source. Many trade routes have been forged across deserts, especially across the Sahara Desert, and traditionally were used by caravans of camels carrying salt, gold, ivory and other goods. Large numbers of slaves were also taken northwards across the Sahara. Some mineral extraction also takes place in deserts and the uninterrupted sunlight gives potential for the capture of large quantities of solar energy.
English desert and its Romance cognates (including Italian and Portuguese deserto, French désert and Spanish desierto) all come from the ecclesiastical Latin dēsertum (originally "an abandoned place"), a participle of dēserere, "to abandon". The correlation between aridity and sparse population is complex and dynamic, varying by culture, era, and technologies; thus the use of the word desert can cause confusion. In English before the 20th century, desert was often used in the sense of "unpopulated area", without specific reference to aridity; but today the word is most often used in its climate-science sense (an area of low precipitation). Phrases such as "desert island" and "Great American Desert" in previous centuries did not necessarily imply sand or aridity; their focus was the sparse population.
A desert is a region of land that is very dry because it receives low amounts of precipitation (usually in the form of rain but may be snow, mist or fog), often has little coverage by plants, and in which streams dry up unless they are supplied by water from outside the area. Deserts generally receive less than 250 mm (10 in) of precipitation each year. The potential evapotranspiration may be large but (in the absence of available water) the actual evapotranspiration may be close to zero. Semideserts are regions which receive between 250 and 500 mm (10 and 20 in) and when clad in grass, these are known as steppes.