Human Life in Deserts
A desert is a hostile, potentially deadly environment for unprepared humans. In hot deserts, high temperatures cause rapid loss of water due to sweating, and the absence of water sources with which to replenish it can result in dehydration and death within a few days. In addition, unprotected humans are also at risk from heatstroke.
Humans may also have to adapt to sandstorms in some deserts, not just in their adverse effects on respiratory systems and eyes, but also in their potentially harmful effects on equipment such as filters, vehicles and communication equipment. Sandstorms can last for hours, sometimes even days. This makes surviving in the desert quite difficult for humans.
Despite this, some cultures have made hot deserts their home for thousands of years, including the Bedouin, Tuareg and Pueblo people. Modern technology, including advanced irrigation systems, desalinization and air conditioning have made deserts much more hospitable. In the United States and Australia for example, desert farming has found extensive use.
In cold deserts, hypothermia and frostbite are the chief hazards, as well as dehydration in the absence of a source of heat to melt ice for drinking. Falling through pack-ice or surface ice layers into freezing water is a particular danger requiring emergency action to prevent rapid hypothermia. Starvation is also a hazard; in low temperatures the body requires much more food energy to maintain body heat and to move. As with hot deserts, some people such as the Inuit have adapted to the harsh conditions of cold deserts.
In hot deserts, dehydration is the chief hazard and hypothermia can be a problem at night. During the day, it is generally advised to keep out of the sun, travelling is best done at night and in early morning. Food is less of an issue, and some plants can often be found to feed oneself. Howevever, eating anything is not advised unless sufficient water is available, as digestion draws water out of the body. In the North American desert, plants such as opuntia, organ pipe cactus, saguaro, Mojave yucca (flowers, fruits), cholla, ocotillo buds, and dates can be eaten.
Most traditional human life in deserts is nomadic. It depends in hot deserts on finding water, and on following infrequent rains to obtain grazing for livestock. In cold deserts, it depends on finding good hunting and fishing grounds, on sheltering from blizzards and winter extremes, and on storing enough food for winter. Permanent settlement in both kinds of deserts requires permanent water and food sources and adequate shelter, or the technology and energy sources to provide it.
Many deserts are flat and featureless, lacking landmarks, or composed of repeating landforms such as sand dunes or the jumbled ice-fields of glaciers. Advanced skills or devices are required to navigate through such landscapes and inexperienced travellers may perish when supplies run out after becoming lost. In addition sandstorms or blizzards may cause disorientation in severely reduced visibility.
The danger represented by wild animals in deserts has been featured in explorers' accounts but does not cause higher rates of death than in other environments such as rain forests or savanna woodland, and generally does not by itself affect human distribution. Defense against polar bears may be advisable in some areas of the Arctic, as may precautions against venomous snakes and scorpions in choosing sites at which to camp in some hot deserts.
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