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!
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.
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!
An oasis is not just a small speck in the desert with a few shade trees and a lake for weary travelers to lurch toward after they've emptied their canteens. Roughly 75 percent of the Sahara's population, for example, lives in oases, which vary widely in size. The popular image of an oasis as a desert paradise is pretty accurate: oases in the Sahara feature palm trees and food sources such as figs, peaches, wheat, and barely. The water at the hub of an oasis comes from natural springs or artesian wells and has to be managed carefully to ensure that crops are successful.
Finally: a pothole you don't want to fix! Desert potholes - also known as ephemeral pools - are naturally formed sandstone basins that support tiny ecosystems in the desert. The creatures that live in these things are fascinating: they have to endure extreme temperature fluctuations: "Surface temperatures vary from 140 degrees Fahrenheit in summer to below freezing in winter," according to the National Park Service. Many of these "pothole organisms" enter a state of "cryptobiosis" to tolerate the extreme conditions where they basically go into a "Sleep Mode," ceasing all metabolic processes (this means no reproduction and no development). When conditions improve, they simply snap out of it and go about their business.