Thursday, July 2, 2009

White Sands National Monument

As Melinda mentioned the other day, just before sunset the day we left Tucson we passed White Sands National Monument, and stopped in to watch the sunset. I've been there a time or two in the past, but it was Melinda's first time and was she impressed! Hundreds of square miles of sparkling white dune fields extending nearly as far as the eye can see. The "sand" referred to in the name is not true sand, but coarse particles of Calcium Sulfate, or gypsum. It is rarely found in a particulate form like this because it is soluble in water, and normally, deposits would be dissolved in rainwater and eventually flow away in streams. But in the Tularosa Basin there is no stream drainage, so the natural deposits form as the frequently dry Lake Lucero evaporates and the wind-borne particles are deposited in the dune fields of the Monument.

As luck would have it, there were rain sprinkles earlier in the day, so the sand deposits were a little crusty, not as smooth as the dry, windblown drifts would normally be. So footprints hung around showing evidence for their makers passing. This applied to creatures as well as people. In the smooth track of a snow disk someone used to descend a dune were the footprints of a small animal. I was suspecting a lizard, but there is no sign of a dragging tail, so I'm leaning towards beetles which are supposed to be numerous. In fact, besides this picture of tracks, the picture that Melinda took of a yucca plant posted the other day shows a multitude of tracks in the side of the dune.

Supposedly the dunes can move 30 feet or more per year, so the roads through the dune fields need "snowplowing" occasionally. Even after the day's sprinkles, the little bit of wind was blowing the white stuff across the road, looking for all the world like a cold day in Iowa in January! The Monument is open well after dark - till 11pm in the summer, so while there was an opportunity to do some observing, we headed to our motel for the night in nearby Alamagordo. There is, however, a White Sands Star Party to be held this September 12th. While the lights of Alamagordo and Holloman Air Force base would light up the northern sky, seeing the Milky Way over the white dunes would be a spectacular sight, I imagine. A post-monsoon road trip?!

1 comment:

Andrew Cooper said...

Nice hearing about your latest road trip just as Deb and I start out on our first in years. Driving for an entire day? What was normal has become new again.