I have asked previously how I could create an earth-like world with as many deserts as possible in it.

With these tips, I've designed a continent with a lot of deserts in it. Trouble is, this continent is very big, so it is bound to come across temperate and coastal zones, where a desertic climate is not possible.

However, I would like this continent to be as barren as possible. If I can't rely on lack of precipitation to achieve this, what others factors could I use to create wastelands?

For the purpose of this question, let's imagine that we this planet is earth-like and that the lands in question are located on a latitude between 45 and 60º in the southern hemisphere.

Edit: Just to clarify, I want these wastelands to be naturally created, not man-made.

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    $\begingroup$ "Temperate and coastal zones, where a desertic climate is not possible": Coastal deserts are not that rare; see for example the Namib Desert, not to mention that the one and only Sahara has an east coast and a west coast. The Great Basin Desert and the fearsome Gobi are at middle (cannot say "temperate", obviously) latitudes. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 27, 2017 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, @AlexP, you're right... however, it is very tough to have a very large continent with only deserts in it. Hence, my question. $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2017 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ The interior of very large continents tends to be desertic. Asia is a good example. But yes, in general it's hard to imagine a continent which does not have some fertile areas; even Australia, which is mostly desertic, has a fertile area in the east. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 27, 2017 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ You may consider adding some antropogenic deserts. Open-pit mining or deforestation may cause desert-like land to appear even if an area was fertile before. $\endgroup$
    – jaboja
    Aug 27, 2017 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ What about having little precipitations because there is little water on the planet to start with? An all-planet continent with just a few salty lakes in the deepest depressions? A world like that would have very little rain at any latitude. Or you want the rest of the world to be normal? $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 7:35

10 Answers 10


Several different ideas occur to me:

Badlands, are areas where rain is actually the enemy of fertility and life. When you have deep underlying sediment that is poorly consolidated and at a reasonable altitude above the local Base Level deep and rapid erosion precludes soil formation and retention.

Wind, wind driven sand can easily account for those areas of the coastline near desert edges that would otherwise be fertile where they are down wind of the major sand and dust deposits. Winds can also rob an area of fine material as in the formation of Desert Pavement, preventing soil development.

Volcanic activity can create several different kinds of wasteland:

  1. fresh deposits, freshly cooled lava is extremely barren and depending on it's chemistry and the local climate weathering can be extremely slow. Equally fresh ash falls are also extremely inhospitable and can continue to be for extended periods even in geological terms.
  2. rocky deposits like those left by ʻAʻā lava flows are even slower to accumulate sufficient erosive and organic material for soil formation due to the deep "boulder field" terrain they leave on the surface.
  3. nutrient poor magma, if the chemistry of the erupted material is deficient in certain elements then any soil that does form can't support flora and fauna, in New Zealand Cobalt Poor Soils on old Ignimbrites from Rhyolite eruptions causes "bush sickness" in stock.
  4. chemically difficult material, Ultramafic Lavas, some Andesite eruptions, and some forms of Carbonatites are so rich in certainly elements, like Magnesium or Florine, that they're antagonistic to life trying to colonise their deposits. This is an effect that can spread over huge areas in the case of Florine in ash from explosive eruptions.
  5. Sulfur, forms a number of toxic and/or corrosive compounds that often leach from volcanic deposits and can kill plants and animals directly or indirectly because it liberates toxic but normally stable compounds from the soil around them.
  6. Carbon Dioxide, a build up of CO2 in the soil as it percolates up from volcanic deposits underground suffocates plant roots and can even displace oxygen close to the ground killing wildlife directly.
  7. heat, just having geothermal fluid, whether in the form of magma or super-heated water, close to the surface can kill plant roots and restrict the growth of plants that have shallow enough root systems to survive anyway.

Salt, deposits of salt, whether waterborne or geological in origin, are lethal to a good number of plants and limit animal life in the area accordingly. This can be an ongoing problem down stream of such deposits as the rainwater that falls on such areas is too saline to support life. Such deposits are not limited to Sodium Chloride table salt either, they can include any water soluble metal salts that are toxic in high doses.

Plant life, if your aim is to make an area impassible by reason of lack of forage then it can be relatively lush; if the plants are toxic, Oleander, Caster, and many Nightshades are toxic in part or as a whole. In areas where rainfall is scarce but reasonably reliable specially adapted plants are the norm so you could use large bands of "poison forest" to make areas impractical to navigate. For that matter forests dominated by coniferous species aren't friendly to beasts of burden or to humans trying to live off the land.

Karst, landscapes can be extremely dangerous to travelers who are unfamiliar with the area and tend toward surface aridity even when local rainfall is extremely high.

Wetlands, if direct drainage routes are blocked, in part or wholesale, then water accumulates drowning most plants out and creating unstable bogs, trackless marshy glasslands, swamps with open water amid maze like forest or fens where the flow of water pulls you off-track over even short distances.

That's everything I can think of off the top of my head.

  • $\begingroup$ Very good comment. And pretty sweet ideas. Thank you. $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ @PedroGabriel No worries, the header list took a couple of minutes, took a lot longer to flesh them out obviously, sing out if there's anything that you want me to work up a bit further. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Aug 28, 2017 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. Just one question. I've read that, sometimes, volcanic ash can, in fact, increase the fertility of the landscape where it falls. So, who's right? Or does it depend on the kind of ash, Ash? $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ @PedroGabriel It depends on what is and isn't in the ejecta, it could be that the contents are toxic, excessive or deficient: Andesite eruptions often have high levels of toxic Florine. Volcanic ash rich in Phosphorus can be a mixed blessing, in small amounts this lends fertility to the land yet in 1995-96 when Mt. Ruapehu erupted Phosphorus poisoning from the ash fall was quite extensive, too much of a good thing. Several of the historic eruptions of Taupo have result in ash falls that are virtually pure silica totally deficient in nutrients for plants to populate the area. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Aug 29, 2017 at 11:29

I grew up in Utah and for years was impressed by Strawberry Reservoir. Check this out:

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Not a tree in sight. Almost nothing larger than sage brush. Habitable only because there's fish in the reservoir. I think of it as a wasteland... and I've seen worse. I've seen reservoirs where, despite all the water, barely anything grows.

So, let's talk about localized wastelands.

Sandy or Volcanic Soil

One way to make a wasteland is to make the soil sandy or volcanic. Water isn't retained in the soil. Sandy soil would usually result in an aquifer, meaning deep rooted stuff will grow (aka, desert plants). Volcanic is even worse.

No Bacteria

Soil needs bacteria — a lot of bacteria — to sustain plant growth. If an apocalypse killed everything down to the bacteria, there would be no plant growth. And it would take a very long time to recover (it takes organics to create the bacteria needed to create organics... a nasty little truth).

Coal Seams

The Centralia Coal Fire has been burning since 1962. The area around the coal seam is a wasteland due to the higher soil heat. Coal seams can burn for centuries and while all those I know about were man-made (you know, "stupid human" problems), technically a lightening strike can get them going so long as a portion of the seam is open to the sky.

Rocky, really rocky

Flood Basalt is what you get when volcanism leaves sheets of rock over massive areas. The ultra-rocky soil is usually anything but lush.

Dead Lake Areas

An inland lake with no outlet like Utah's Great Salt Lake or the Middle East's Dead Sea is a scrappy area due to the high salt content, especially if it's at a higher altitude like the Great Salt Lake. Consider also the Bonneville Salt Flats, the high-salt desert left behind when Lake Bonneville drained away.

High Altitudes

Finally, everything above the treeline is scrappy. A mountainous (think "Tibet" mountainous) region would have very limited vegitation only in lower canyon areas.

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    $\begingroup$ This is comprehensive. One more would be radiation: too much for life. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Aug 28, 2017 at 12:08
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with rocky or sandy is that in a favorable climate, within a few hundred to a few thousand years the scrappy vegetation will have created a layer of good soil on top that can support a significant amount of vegetation. Cape Cod in Massachusetts is an example of this. It's basically a giant sandbar left over from the last glacier, but it supports forests. And salt in a wet climate would wash away quickly in geologic terms if it isn't absurd amounts or frequently replaced. $\endgroup$
    – Karen
    Aug 28, 2017 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ What about strong permanent winds? See here $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ One more to add to the list would be toxicity. Surface lead deposits (or other heavy metals or toxic, naturally occurring chemicals) could leave an area devoid of life, no matter how otherwise favorable the climate is. On earth, a lot of that is due to human mining activity, but it need not necessarily be the case. $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Karen: Actually almost all of New England is a good example of this. It was scraped down to bare rock during the last Ice Age, yet most of it now supports a good vegetation cover. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Aug 28, 2017 at 17:11

Let's take a step back. Specifically, what is your motivation? Are you a fan of the visuals of vast dune seas? Looking to create a resource shortage for characters to fight over? Exploring the idea that bleak landscapes create pensive, wise people?

If it's simple resource shortage you want, have this be a young continent. You get plenty of craggy mountains, a lack of available salt (as it's never been submerged beneath the ocean). This will hamper at least animal life. Lots of barely cooled basalt lava flows couldn't hurt.

Throw in a destabilizing new animal species or two. Say, goats recently got to the continent, and are overgrazing, causing desertification. Hmm ... how exotic do you want to get? Could it be that your world is a CO2 atmosphere, and this continent has just seen the evolution of photosynthesis? Some new critter is poisoning its neighbors with toxic oxygen!

Or ... the nuclear option. Perhaps this continent is recovering from an asteroid strike of near dinosaur-killer levels. Lack of light (let's say some effect localized this to the southern hemisphere) has killed off all the plants, hence the animals all died.

Here's one for you... let's say that local trees have evolved a special structural chemical which local bacteria cannot digest (this has happened on Earth). Life on your continent is slowly choking itself out under the weight of never-decomposing tree trunks.

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    $\begingroup$ Just to clarify: "Are you a fan of the visuals of vast dune seas? Looking to create a resource shortage for characters to fight over? Exploring the idea that bleak landscapes create pensive, wise people?". Yes, to all of the three questions. $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ Well you can certainly have a dune sea or two! Intersperse with rocky badlands, lava flows, fields of huge crystal growths of eerie beauty (but are dangerous to approach), and league upon league of struggling high steppe. $\endgroup$
    – akaioi
    Aug 28, 2017 at 20:40

Take a look at the south of Argentine Patagonia, i. e. the southeastern end of continental South America, which lies roughly between the 40° and 50° S parallels (excluding the island of Tierra del Fuego). The Andes create a rain shadow that means that the prevailing westerly winds discharge most of their humidity on the Chilean side; on the Argentine side the places located right by the feet of the mountains get a lot of rain, but as you progress east the climate becomes extremely dry. This is the Patagonian Desert (in parts it is technically a steppe, I believe). It's the 8th largest in the world.

North of Patagonia you have another desertic region, Cuyo, which is only livable because of extensive irrigation, and the arid parts of the Pampas. The fertile pampa regions for which Argentina is famous get their humidity mostly from two sources: an anticyclone in the south Atlantic which brings moist oceanic air from the south, and northerly winds from Brazil. The latter can only penetrate deep into the region because there are no significant mountain ranges between southern Brazil and northern Argentina; if there were, the arid climate would surely extend north for thousand of kilometers. The Atlantic anticyclones sometimes bring disastrous storms to the mouth of the Río de la Plata, and up the littoral region as far as 300 km north of Buenos Aires, but these are not persistent features.

Based on this real-life example I would say your best bet is to make your continent very large, place high mountains in the way of the prevailing oceanic winds, and try to work out how to disrupt other sources of humidity. This might be impossible unless you want to go the Mordor way and box it all into a (totally unrealistic) rectangular mountain range.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer, but the question is not about forming deserts (that was the purpose of the other question that I linked), but rather how to create wastelands on places where there is a sufficient amount of precipitation for there not to be a desert. $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 19:37

Shield rock or cratons, such as found in northern Canada (as far south as 50°N), exposed by glacial erosion of topsoils are arguably wastelands. At warmer climates you may find treeless expanses of lichens, mosses and scrub, while colder climates will remain rocky for eons. This area may be pitted with thousands of small lakes, which freeze over in the winter.


It just went to my mind very simple idea.

How about that the planet contains small amount of H2O itself? The amount of water takes about 66% area of Earth, so how about 33% on your planet? Earth-like planet I understand as: similar size and gravity, similar atmospheric pressure and magnetosphere, similar chemical composition (but slightly different proportion) etc...

It would recalculate as much less humidity in atmosphere and most of the land would remain desert (except coastlines, reservoirs and rivers).

The question that remains is if life can really evolve on such planet but we couldn't answer based on our knowledge yet.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer, but the question is not about forming deserts (that was the purpose of the other question that I linked), but rather how to create wastelands on places where there is a sufficient amount of precipitation for there not to be a desert. $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 19:37

Solar Radiation may be best suited to your needs. If Solar Radiation were increased it could kill plants over vast areas, starting spreading from the equator. This would also be very inhospitable to humans without protective suits.

Volcanic Activity is of course another option, if your planet is very geologically unstable then it could have large areas be prone to lava flows, covered in volcanic rock, or poisoned with acid.

Post apocalyptic radiation Did they drop the bomb? If so it was probably targeted at more heavily populated regions built in fertile areas. These may no longer be inhabitable.

Low Water Content Planet Obviously your planet doesn't have to share Earth's exact composition, if it has less water then it would have larger desert regions.

Frozen Deserts Antartica is the worlds largest desert, but it doesn't seem to be exactly what you had in mind.


Even Australia is remarkably dry for its medium size and positioning (lots of coastline.)

The reason we think in terms of proportions of coastal, temperate, etc - is because we experience that on many continents. But, these proportions rely on things like the jet stream. The tilt of the planet. Moon (tides) and maybe even the magnetosphere.

Make a planet with no tilt, no moon, no jet stream and the proportions of temperate, desert, etc will change.

California's recent mega drought (four years of very little rain) killed of major swaths of trees and may have boiled down to a high pressure ridge that directed ocean air too far northward. I think these sorts of things make a desert continent entirely feasible.

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    $\begingroup$ Though note that California's drought didn't make a wasteland (except in areas, like the LA Basin, that already were due to human activity), and was followed by a year of historically high precipitation. And from what I can see, the trees are doing pretty well. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Aug 28, 2017 at 3:42

Building on User54373's suggestion of a young continent...

  1. Life has not yet emerged onto land. The whole of your continental interiors will therefore be "deserts" because there are no plants, no proper soil, and so on. Think Earth in the Ordovician or Silurian Period. There is plenty life in the sea, rivers and lakes. Riverbanks and shorelines have life. Everywhere else is barren rock or (in rainy areas) maybe rock with a layer of algae on it.
  2. Have a supercontinent. All the continents are amalgamated into one massive mega-continent. Think the continent of Pangea in the Permian period. Even in temperate latitudes, there will be large areas which don't receive any rainfall. The wind picks up moisture as it travels over the sea, then that falls as rain on the land. However, all the rain has fallen out of the sky long before the wind can reach the interior of a supercontinent.
  3. Have a supercontinent in an ice age. As above, but a lot of the world's water is locked up in glaciers and ice caps. This makes sea level drop, so your supercontinent is even bigger! And there is less water to fall as rain (10 to 20% less than today on Earth), so forests turn into grasslands, grasslands turn into deserts, and the existing deserts (hot and cold) expand their area massively.
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer, but the question is not about forming deserts (that was the purpose of the other question that I linked), but rather how to create wastelands on places where there is a sufficient amount of precipitation for there not to be a desert. $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ @PedroGabriel. Okay. The "no life on land" bit of the answer still counts - plenty of rain in all the places you expect, but no plants so everything is a barren, rocky wasteland. $\endgroup$
    – DrBob
    Aug 29, 2017 at 11:57

Get Your Own Brand New Planet

The easiest way to make a barren but mid climated planet is: Just don't give time to life to develop.

Life take lots of time to develop/evolve/colonize so maybe your planet is in a early stage.

A nice stage to take is it already got plenty of ocean life (and oxygen made by blue algae) but land is not colonized yet despiste some fish do some walking to nest eggs in the mud maybe.


Another way to achieve it is by turning the planet of surface utra poor in minerals and with little to none volcaninsm. That way only a few places where there are impacts with rich mineral meteors can sustain crops.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer, but I would like my planet to have human life, even though confined to small pockets of fertile land on an otherwise barren and large continent. $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2017 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ @PedroGabriel see my edit $\endgroup$
    – jean
    Aug 28, 2017 at 20:31

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