Iran’s Lut Desert: Now On UNESCO’s World Heritage List

Question: which geographical area has become the first Iranian site to be inscribed on UNESCO’s natural heritage list?

Answer: The Lut desert, or Dasht-e-Lut. Located in the southeast of the country, this is the 27th largest desert in the world, stretching across 51,800 square kilometers (20,000 square miles), and shared between the provinces of Kerman and Sistan-Baluchistan.

Dasht-e Lut is considered to be one of the driest places on earth. It is 480 kilometers (298 miles) long and 320 kilometers (199 miles) wide. Based on satellite temperature data recorded by NASA’s Aqua satellite (using a Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, between 2003 and 2010), Dasht-e Lut is also one of the hottest land surfaces on Earth. In fact, it recorded the highest land surface temperature ever measured on the planet in 2005: a sweltering 70.7 degrees Celsius.

The Lut Desert, or Dasth-e-Lut “represents an exceptional example of ongoing geological processes,” UNESCO said when inscribing the site on its World Heritage List last year. “Between June and October, the area is swept by strong winds, which transport sediment and cause Aeolian [i.e. wind] erosion on a colossal scale. Consequently, the site presents some of the most spectacular examples of Aeolian yardang landforms (massive corrugated ridges). It also contains extensive stony deserts and dune fields.”

Dash-e Lut is the scene of spectacular geological configurations known as Aeolian yardang formations. The central part of the desert has been sculpted by the wind into a series of parallel ridges and furrows that extend over 150 km (93 miles) and reach 75 meters (246 feet) in height. The eastern part is a low plateau covered with salt flats, and the southeastern part is a vast expanse of sand, with 300-meter (980 feet) high dunes, among the tallest in the world.

Iran is situated in a high-altitude plateau surrounded by mountains. According to Encyclopedia Iranica, the central part of the plateau resembles a saucer. Alluvial fans sloping down from the Alborz, Zagros and Paropamisus mountain ranges into the arid interior represent the rim of the plateau, and enclose a network of basins. A few of these basins contain permanent or intermittent lakes that depend on river flow from the mountains. The largest basins, which lie at the center of the saucer, have the severest desert conditions. Dasht-e Lut is one of the two barren wastelands that occupy the greater part of these basins, the other being Dasht-e Kavir (Kavir-e Namak).

Average annual rainfall throughout these deserts is less than 100 millimeters. In the driest part of the plateau, near the center of the Lut, the wind has carved out deep furrows, leaving broken ridges that increase in height and density toward the south. “These fantastically eroded forms, called Kalut and yardangs by physical geographers, resemble passageways between ruined buildings, and have sometimes been mistaken by foreign travelers for ruins of ancient cities,” according to Encyclopedia Iranica.