Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Sands of Time

After the wedding celebration we spent a cool night in Cloudcroft, then headed down the mountain to Alamogordo well-stocked with generous gifts of apples and apple cider. On our way down the mountain, we saw this magnificent vista to the west. Unfortunately, it was a windy day and the dust obscured part of the view.

We camped in Boot Hill RV Park in Alamogordo, which had very nice facilities, and got the dogs' vote because it had a spacious run with plenty of room for playing ball, sniffing and dog tussles.   Monday afternoon we toured the New Mexico Museum of Space History which focuses on the part New Mexico has played in the US space program. In addition to a flight simulator, there were excellent displays of satellites, rockets, etc. We highly recommend it.

On Tuesday, we came back to the Museum to see the IMAX production of "Hubble." Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, this is the seventh in the series for the IMAX Space Team. The production puts you up close and personal with the astronauts as they experience the launch and engage in space walks to repair the mammoth telescope. The views of galaxies near and far are breathtaking, and for the first time I realized just what this incredible piece of equipment brings to our understanding of our world. Please check out your local IMAX and don't miss it.

Alamogordo is famous not only for its proximity to White Sands Missile Range, but as the location of the White Sands National Monument. Consisting of white gypsum, the dunes are spectacular at any time of the day, but especially at morning and evening. This is one of only three occurrences of any size in the world of gypsum dunes. The Monument encompasses over 275 square miles of dunes, and dwarfs the other two locations (in New Mexico and Texas) which cover less than ten square miles each.  Formed millions of years ago, the basin has created a National treasure in the form of the magnificent snow-white dunes.

I was fortunate to be the first person to take the one-mile nature loop on Tuesday morning, so I had wonderful views of the dunes unmarred by footprints, except for these little prints, possibly made by the tiny kit fox that lives here.

On Tuesday evening, we returned for a one-hour ranger-guided walk into the dunes. Though there were footprints by this time, the soft evening light was beautiful, causing the sand and the surrounding mountains to glow in shades of peach, orange and magenta.

We learned that the gypsum dunes occur in this area because of the Tularosa Basin.  A basin, unlike a valley, has no outlet for runoff water.  Since gypsum is water-soluble, it rarely forms crystals.  However, in this instance the water carrying the dissolved gypsum, having no outlet from the basin, simply flows into the dunes area and evaporates, leaving behind selenium crystals collected on its way.  These break down into smaller particles and form the dunes.

The dunes "migrate" due to wind currents, and the base can move up to ten feet in a year. As they move, the dunes cover some forms of vegetation, and uncover others. When a dune moves away from a plant, if its roots are well-entrenched in the groundwater layer that lies three feet or so below the dunes, the plant holds the sand and forms a "pedestal," like the one in the photo above.  If the plant is healthy, its pedestal can be quite large.  However, eventually the dune moves away and the plant collapses because it has no support.

Good fortune for the area, in the form of a two-inch rain the week before, was not to our advantage.  The road into the dunes is only paved for 3.5 of its 8-mile length.  Because the rain dissolved the hard-packed gypsum of the road into the heart of the dunes, the last 4.5 miles  of the road was closed to traffic.  We were unable, therefore, to see the "heart" of the park, where the large dunes are devoid of vegetation.  We'll have a good excuse to return another day!


No comments:

Post a Comment