A semi-arid climate or steppe climate describes climatic regions that receive precipitation below potential evapotranspiration, but not extremely. A more precise definition is given by the Köppen climate classification that treats steppe climates (BSk and BSh) as intermediates between desert climates (BW) and humid climates in ecological characteristics and agricultural potential. Semi-arid climates tend to support short or scrubby vegetation, with semi-arid areas usually dominated by either grasses or shrubs.
To determine if a location has a semi-arid climate, the precipitation threshold must first be determined. Finding the precipitation threshold (in millimeters) involves first multiplying the average annual temperature in °C by 20, then adding 280 if 70% or more of the total precipitation is in the high-sun half of the year (April through September in the Northern Hemisphere, or October through March in the Southern), or 140 if 30%–70% of the total precipitation is received during the applicable period, or 0 if less than 30% of the total precipitation is so received. If the area's annual precipitation is less than the threshold but more than half the threshold, it is classified as a BS (steppe climate).
Furthermore, to delineate "hot semi-arid climates" from "cold semi-arid climates", there are three widely used isotherms: Either a mean annual temperature of 18°C, or a mean temperature of 0°C or −3°C in the coldest month, so that a location with a "BS" type climate with the appropriate temperature above whichever isotherm is being used is classified as "hot semi-arid" (BSh), and a location with the appropriate temperature below the given isotherm is classified as "cold semi-arid" (BSk).
Warm semi-arid climates
Hot semi-arid climates (type "BSh") tend to be located in the tropics and subtropics. These climates tend to have hot, sometimes extremely hot, summers and mild to warm winters. Snow rarely (if ever) falls in these regions. Hot semi-arid climates are most commonly found around the fringes of subtropical deserts. The most common variant of a hot semi-arid climate, found in regions such as West Africa, India, parts of Mexico and small parts of Pakistan experiences the seasonal effects of monsoons and has a short but well-defined wet season, but is not sufficiently wet overall to qualify as a tropical savanna climate. In Australia, a large portion of the Outback, surrounding the central desert regions, lies within the hot semi-arid climate regime. Hot semi-arid climates can also be found in sections of South America such as the sertão and on the poleward side of the arid deserts where they typically feature a Mediterranean precipitation pattern, with generally rainless summers and wetter winters.
Cool semi-arid climates
Cold semi-arid climates (type "BSk") tend to be located in temperate zones. They are typically found in continental interiors some distance from large bodies of water. Cold semi-arid climates usually feature hot and dry (often exceptionally hot) summers, though their summers are typically not quite as hot as those of hot semi-arid climates. Unlike hot semi-arid climates, areas with cold semi-arid climates tend to have cold winters. These areas usually see some snowfall during the winter, though snowfall is much lower than at locations at similar latitudes with more humid climates. Areas featuring cold semi-arid climates tend to have higher elevations than areas with hot semi-arid climates, and are sometimes subject to major temperature swings between day and night, sometimes by as much as 15℃/27℉ or more in that time frame. These temperature swings are seldom seen in hot semi-arid climates. Cold semi-arid climates at higher latitudes tend to have dry winters and wetter summers, while cold semi-arid climates at lower latitudes tend to have precipitation patterns more akin to Mediterranean climates, with dry summers, relatively wet winters, and even wetter springs and autumns. Cold semi-arid climates are most commonly found in Asia and North America. However, it can also be found in Northern Africa, South Africa, Europe, (primarily in Spain) sections of South America and sections of interior southern Australia and New Zealand.
Regions of varying classification
Three isotherms means that delineate between hot and cold semi-arid climates --- the 18°C average annual temperature or that of the coldest month (0°C or −3°C), the warm side of the isotherm of choice defining a BSh climate from the BSk on the cooler side. As a result of this, some areas can have climates that are classified as hot or cold semi-arid depending on the isotherm used. One such location is San Diego, California (at its main airport), which has cool summers for the latitude due to prevailing winds off the ocean (so the average annual temperature is below 18°C) but mild winters (average temperature in January, 14°C, and closer to the 18.0°C isotherm that separates tropical and subtropical climates than to the 0°C or −3°C isotherm for the coldest month that separates temperate and continental climates).
- Continental climate
- Dust Bowl (an era of devastating dust storms, mostly in the 1930s, in semi-arid areas on the Great Plains of the United States and Canada)
- Goyder's Line (a boundary marking the limit of semi-arid climates in the Australian state of South Australia)
- Palliser's Triangle (semi-arid area of Canada)
- Köppen climate classification