Tree at Uweinat on the Sudan Libya border in the Fezzan desert
Countryside at Jebel Akhdar, Libya
Lake Gabron, one of the Germa Lakes, Fezzan, Libya
Libya is an enormous country with a land area of 1,759,540 km2 and a population of 5.5 million of which the vast majority live on the coastal plain. It borders Algeria and Tunisia in the west, Egypt and Sudan in the east and Niger and Chad in the south. Its Mediterranean coastline is 1,770 km.
In very general terms the climate is Mediterranean along the north west (Tripolitania) and north east (Cyrenaica) coasts. But the climates of both of these areas are significantly affected by hill ranges.
The central northern coast around the Gulf of Sirt and the interior to the south is dry and extreme. It has been said “the beach at Sirt goes all the way to Chad”. This area (called the Fezzan) which covers more than 90% of the country is mostly desert or semi-desert. The terrain is mostly barren, flat to undulating plains, plateaux and depressions with the lowest point at 47m below sea level and the highest at 2,267m.
The following sections give more detailed descriptions.
This area which runs from the border with Tunisia in the west to the city of Misratah in the east has three distinct environments. The bird life reflects these environments.
There is a thin strip of land varying between 5 and 20 kilometres from the sea where the climate is classically Mediterranean. No land is above 20 metres except near Al Khum. The rainfall is between 200mm and 280 mm. Most falls between November and March. Much of this land is developed but where it is not the main vegetation is garrigue. In a few places – mostly in the far west near the Tunisian border (at Farwa) and also south of Misratah in the east, there are seasonal saltmarshes. On the coast as a whole there are very few remaining cypress woods. However there are citrus and olive groves in places which are watered through irrigation schemes.
Jebel Nafusa hill range
Running east-west to the border with Tunisia and 60 kilometres south of the coast at Tripoli is a hill range called the Jebel Nafusa. There is a mini plateau at 200 metres on the north facing side which leads to an escarpment up to a plateau at 600 metres with outcrops up to 890 metres. The south facing side is shallow and gently falls down to 400 metres when it grades into the Sahara desert. The western side of the Jebel Nafusa plateau near Tunisia receives about 150 mm of rain while the eastern side near the town of Gharyan receives 320 mm. This is the highest rainfall in north west Libya. Consequently this area is relatively green especially in the wadi valleys. The temperatures are often a little cooler than on the coast because of the altitude. Much of the area is farmed.
East of Ghayan the hill range falls down to 300 metres and heads north towards the coast at Al Khum. The valleys off this geographic feature have some of the greenest and most fertile land in Libya.
Inland coastal plain
This is the area between the Jebel Nafusa and the coastal strip. Much of it is flat semi-desert. Rainfall is typically 100-150 mm per annum. Its land mass is actually larger than that of the coastal strip.
The biggest city in this region is Benghazi which is Libya’s second largest. It receives almost exactly the same rainfall (250mm) as Tripoli in the north west but it is marginally cooler throughout the year. Although the whole area can loosely be described as having a Mediterranean climate there are four main variants within 200 kilometres of the city.
Coastal plain south of Benghazi
The area on the coast and inland grades from garrigue to semi-desert rapidly as you go south from Benghazi. Gaminis which is just 40 kilometres south of Benghazi is the last place that you can farm without artificial irrigation. Rainfall drops form 250mm in Benghazi to 175mm in Gaminis and even less further south. All the way down the coast there are very large seasonal saltpans. These are fed by the winter rains. In summer they shrink massively. At Jardinah and Suluq, which are 20 kilometres inland from the sea, there is an area of approximately 100 kilometres which is extremely well irrigated and fertilised. This farmland is green and productive. It is in complete contrast to the surrounding semi desert area.
Coastal plain north east of Benghazi
This low lying area is mostly garrigue which grades to maquis as you go further north and east. It is a broad plain about 20 kilometres wide at Benghazi but which narrows to 2 kilometres by approximately 80 kilometres north east of the city. Rainfall is about 250mm to 300mm. Like the south coast, this coast has a few very important saltpans which swell in winter. It also has one sea inlet. To the east of the coastal strip is the Al Marj plateau at 300m and to the north east is the Jebel Akhdar which is typically 600m.
Al Marj plain
This is good farming country which is directly east of Benghazi. There is significant wheat and barley production. It is hilly. There is a plateau at 300 m centred on the town of Al Marj. Rainfall is typically 325mm near Al Marj and becoming a little drier further south.
This is the land north of the elevated Al Marj plain and east of the sea level coastal plain. It is the wettest place in all of Libya. Rainfall in Shahat (called Cyrene in ancient times) is 570 mm. This area can genuinely be called green particularly in winter. It still retains large areas of cypress forest and pastures. It is well farmed and it is the most temperate place in the country too. Temperatures in Shahat are roughly 5C less than in Benghazi all year round. It has as much in common with southern Europe climatically as with the rest of Libya.
One definition of the Sahara desert is land which receives less than 100mm of rainfall a year. This definition includes 90% of Libya. All of the central northern coast around the Gulf of Sirt is desert and all land south of there is too. Nevertheless the desert is not completely homogeneous. Roughly 28% of the Fezzan is “erg” or a sand sea. The rest is rocky desert, oases, mountains or wadis based on the oases or mountains.
Much of the desert is elevated typically at 400m. Oases occur in places where the land is significantly lower than the surrounding areas. Two chains of oases occur west of the largest settlement in the Libyan Sahara – Sebha. One chain is north west of Sebha and is called Zallaf. The second chain is south west of Sebha and is often called the Germa or Ubari lakes. Other main oases are found at Ghat in the far south west and at Kufra in the central eastern desert.
The mountain ranges are mostly in inaccessible places. The highest mountains are the Tibesti mountains on the border with Chad. These reach over 2000m on the Libyan side but over 3000m on the Chadian side. The other main ones are Jebel Akakus near Ghat in the south west and Uweinat where Libya, Sudan and Egypt meet. Both these mountains are over 1250m.
Greening the desert projects
Like at Jardinah and Sulug near the coast south of Benghazi, there are a few highly irrigated and extremely larger farms in the desert which are irrigated using water from the “Great Man Made River project”. This project taps into huge underground aquifers under the desert. The two largest farms are near Kufra in the central eastern desert and at Makunsah which is 50 kilometres south of the middle of the Germa lake complex. These farms have a micro-climate greatly different from the surrounding desert.