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Rainfall is a world generation layer. Its value is displayed in the F3 debug screen. Rainfall is used to determine which Trees, Shrubs, Crops, and Animals can spawn in a chunk. It also effects the terrain generation: very low rainfall areas are more likely to have sand and dry grass.
Rainfall varies based on three conditions: biome (ex:Swamp, Plains, Rolling Hills), Latitude (Z coordinate), and random local variation. Rainfall is very high near the Equator (z=0) and lowest at the Horse Latitudes (z=+/-10,000). Deserts or dry scrub land are common at these latitudes. Since version 0.83.5, the Horse Latitude does not remain at z=10,000, but can range +/- 2000 (that is: from 12k to 8k) around the old location. The area follows a sine wave pattern with a period of 120,000 blocks. The result is that the world's deserts will shift north or south as you travel east or west.