South of the Arizona-New Mexico Mountains are the continental desert climates, which have not only extreme aridity, but also extremely high air and soil temperatures. Direct sun radiation is very strong, as is outgoing radiation at night, causing extreme variations between day and night temperatures and a rare nocturnal frost. Annual precipitation is less than 8 in (200 mm), and less than 4 in (100 mm) in extreme deserts (see Appendix 2, climate diagram for Brawley, California). These areas have climates that Trewartha (1968) calls BWh.
The region is characterized by dry-desert vegetation, a class of xerophytic plants that are widely dispersed and provide negligible ground cover. In dry periods, visible vegetation is limited to small hard-leaved or spiny shrubs, cacti, or hard grasses. Many species of small annuals may be present, but they appear only after the rare but heavy rains have saturated the soil.
In the Mojave-Sonoran Deserts (American Desert), plants are often so large that some places have a near-woodland appearance. Well known are the treelike saguaro cactus, the prickly pear cactus, the ocotillo, creosote bush, and smoke tree. But much of the desert of the Southwestern United States is in fact scrub, thorn scrub, savanna, or steppe grassland. Parts of this region have no visible plants; they are made up of shifting sand dunes or almost sterile salt flats.
A dominant pedogenic process is salinization, which produces areas of salt crust where only salt-loving (halophytic) plants can survive. Calcification is conspicuous on well-drained uplands, where encrustations and deposits of calcium carbonate (caliche) are common. Humus is lacking and soils are mostly Aridisols and dry Entisols.