Deserts are some of the most foreboding and mysterious regions found on Earth. The characteristic lack of water makes deserts generally inhospitable, but people have been living in and exploring deserts for thousands of years nonetheless.
What exactly makes a desert? Deserts are barren areas of land where it's tricky for plants and animals to survive. They form thanks to weathering processes, the results of wide variations between night and day temperatures. This variation stresses rocks, which breakdown over time. Combine this with not much rain at all and you'll find yourself smack in the middle of a hot, dusty desert. But it's not all bad - maybe you'll meet a lizard!
What desert phenomena can we find in these regions and what weird desert phenomena still have scientists perplexed? What cool desert phenomena could we witness with enough patience and determination? From haboobs (seriously intense dust storms) to desert varnish, there's lots more happening out in the desert than just lots and lots of sand. Dig into this list to learn about the coolest things that happen in the desert!
These surreal desert pockmarks may look like something out of a Dr. Suess book, but they're definitely real - and definitely rare. They've only been found two places on the planet: the Namib Desert in South Africa and the Pilbara region in Western Australia. Researchers aren't entirely clear on how, exactly, the circles form, but the leading theory is that plants "organize" themselves into these crazy patterns "according to scarce water availability." The conditions have to be just right for the fairy circles to reveal themselves, and it seems like these two regions cast the right spell: despite being thousands and thousands of miles apart, Australian and African fairy circles are almost identical, with nearly the same repeating hexagonal shapes when viewed from above.
"Desert varnish" forms on stable rock faces that (due to whatever factors) are no longer frequently acted on by precipitation or wind abrasion. It's most commonly composed of clay and iron and manganese oxides, is only about a micrometer thick, and ranges in color from orange-yellow to black.
What causes it? Jeff Mitton at Colorado State University says scientists agree that "water, clay, microbes and minerals interact over long periods of time" to form desert varnish, but there's some controversy over the particulars.
Early Native Americans used large walls of rock covered by desert varnish as a canvas for their art, since the rock underneath the varnish is significantly lighter.
The one in the photograph above is a particularly extreme example, but still shaped by the same forces that produce all yardangs. Yardangs are vertical protrusions of bedrock or consolidated sediments shaped by wind abrasion and the removal of loose dust and sand (aka deflation). Typically, yardangs are shaped longer than they are wide relative to the constant direction of the wind that shaped them. They usually appear in groups called "fleets." Try saying it outloud in a sentence: "Let's take our engagement pictures next to that fleet of yardangs." Fun!
Everyone knows about dunes, right? They're what most people think about when they imagine a desert. They form when loose sand accumulates under just the right conditions. You need really dry sand, first of all, because moisture causes the grains to stick together. This is why dunes are most common in the driest climates on earth (but also, weirdly, in places like Michigan, thanks to some voodoo caused by the Great Lakes). You also need something to move the sand around, which is usually wind (but underwater dunes are also a thing). Lastly, you need obstacles for the sand to accumulate around (typically rocks and sparse vegetation). Ta da! Dunes!
But did you know that some dunes "sing"? It's true: climbing up or sliding down a dune under the right conditions can cause an avalanche that triggers a "100-decibel singing sound" caused by "a feedback loop of collisions." The face of a dune acts as a loudspeaker of sorts, amplifying the vibrations of the shifting and colliding sand. Researchers say you can feel the "song" in your whole body if the conditions are just right.