Sand Dunes in the Desert are Surprisingly Rare

Deserts have sand, sure, but sand dunes are surprisingly rare. Death Valley National Park has one, though. And it’s beautiful in its contrast.

While sand is everywhere in the desert, dunes are not–they need both a strong wind and something to slow down the wind. In Death Valley, as the sand erodes down one mountain, it’s blocked by another. The sands do shift with windstorms, but the dunes are trapped in place.

mesquite dunes

An Obsession with Sea Level

This a National Park with a lot of stats to notch its belt:

  • largest park in the lower 48
  • driest park in the U.S. (sometimes as little as 1.5 inches of rain per year, others none)
  • Second lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, and lowest in North America
  • Hottest park in the country. On July 10, 1913 it was 134 degrees. De-lightful. That’s the highest temp ever recored in North America. Average summer temp: a mild 120. I was there mid-April and it was a balmy 98.

How does this relate to sea level? Because everywhere you go they tell you where you are in context of the ocean. Sometimes level, sometimes thousands of feet above, sometimes only five feet below, and so on. It tickled me. So many extremes in one park–the heights change the temperature, too, of course–there can be at least a 20 degree difference from the peaks to the valleys.

And this focus on sea level made me wonder–is the sea actually level? Is that a constant measurement around the Earth? Answer: It is not. They should say “Pacific Sea Level” or “Atlantic Sea Level” because faults shift, levels are different near the equator and poles, and currents, weather, and such have daily impact. They can fluctuate 300 feet from point to point. Thank you, dear Interweb, for the education.

A Very Colorful Park

If you wore camouflage in this park, you’d have to add in turquoise and 1980’s peach. Basic browns just won’t do. Click the pic to advance the slideshow.

This area is called Artist’s Palette. Aptly named. Click the pic to advance the slideshow.

Very, Very High

Mountains, valleys, and a view of the salt flats–we’ll learn more about them in a minute. Honor that the mountains are rising AND the valley is sinking. Right now just admire their beauty. Click the pic to advance the slideshow.

Very, Very Low

While the highest point in the park, Dante’s Peak, is 5000 feet, the lowest point is 282 feet below sea level. At the Badwater Basin it collects just what its name implies–the mucky water that runs off the mountains, collecting salt and minerals as it goes. With no outlet to the sea, it stagnates in 9,000 square miles of drainage–larger than New Hampshire.

Here’s the pretty salt designs some are fortunate to see–I was not so lucky.

salt octagon

Photo courtesy of Flickr

The water evaporates and leaves a crusty, crystalized oddly beautiful snowflake of foulness. You have to be willing to find the beauty. Click the pick to advance the slideshow.

The land tilts like a see-saw here, fault lines are unstable. The basin drops faster than it fills: earthquakes keep lowering the ground level.

A Happy Accident

I wasn’t originally planning to come to Death Valley. Another barren space? I’ll pass. But the parks I really wanted to visit are still getting snow storms and that’s not gonna happen–tire chains are required. So I changed my plans and am so thankful that I did. The contradictions, the colors, the vast spaces, the trapped elements. It was fascinating and a place where I can see how someone could be inspired to a life a science.


What inspired you onto the path of your work or hobby?


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