See the moving rocks of Death Valley and other desert phenomena
Aside from the ocean, deserts are some of the most mysterious landscapes on the planet. The otherworldly terrain is often used as a natural setting for movies, and keen travelers are willing to brave the harsh environment to witness it for themselves. While many of the desert’s secrets have been explained through the hard work of scientists, the natural quirks are impressive nonetheless. These unique desert phenomena underline the immense beauty and power of our planet, and here’s how to see them.
8 Fairy circles
Located in southern Africa, the coastal desert country of Namibia is home to an impressive diversity of landscapes. Its small population and lack of development make travelers feel less like tourists than explorers. To embark on a desert adventure is to discover a dotted landscape that can only be seen in a few regions of the world. Fairy circles, or circular patches of arid land surrounded by grassy vegetation, decorate the Namib Desert.
There are over a million fairy circles that vary in size. While scientists have theorized for decades about the cause of the oddity, they still have not come to an agreement. Some believe that termites are responsible. Others think it’s how vegetation is conserved in the desert, or maybe a combination of the two. Fairy circles were unique to the Namib Desert until 2014, when similar spots were discovered in the Australian outback. Two years later, more were discovered in the Pilbara area near a small mining town.
Mirages are not just a desert phenomenon, but this is where a person is most likely to witness the optical illusion. When the sun heats the sand, the heat emanates from the ground. The air is cooler above the heated floor, and the light rays pass through each temperature layer differently. The result is a reflection that often looks like water but can also reflect objects in the landscape and cause a double vision effect. A wanderer’s best bet to see a mirage is to go to the desert on a hot, sunny day.
Although mirages are a snap, finding water in the desert is possible. Oases are fertile areas supplied by underground water sources. They are often surrounded by lush vegetation that cannot be seen in other parts of the desert. Concentrations of fertile land are essential passage points for humans and animals living in harsh environments, providing fresh water for drinking and agriculture.
There are oases in deserts all over the world. The oasis of Seba in the Sahara Desert in Libya, Huacachina in Peru, Chebika in Tunisia and the Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon are among the most beautiful.
5 Singing dunes
The views of the desert are often from another world, but in some places the magic spreads to the other senses. A natural soundtrack is played from the rolling dunes of Altyn Emel National Park in Kazakhstan, Kelso Dunes in the Mojave Desert, and the Kumtag Desert in China, to name a few. The bass sound is loud enough to be felt and seems to come from everywhere at once.
Many environmental elements work together to produce the sung sounds. Strong winds push the looser surface sand layer through the denser sand below. The size of the grains of sand, the slope and depth of the dunes, and the amount of sand moved all have an impact on the sounds, which can last for several minutes and explode as loud as a nearby helicopter.
4 Dry lakes
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when deserts were anything but dry, but millions of years ago some of the most arid landscapes were teeming with lush vegetation and abundant wildlife. Remnants of their fertile past can be seen in the cracked terrain where giant lakes once stood, called playas.
Travelers head to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia to take unique photos of the vast prehistoric dry lake. When it is dry, the remaining salt will burn in the sun. After a rain, the expanse turns into a stunning natural mirror that perfectly reflects the sky. Another popular destination is Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, home to another desert phenomenon that we’ll talk about later.
While the sight of a giant wall of sand is nothing short of amazing, it is a desert phenomenon best seen from a distance. Despite their silly name, haboobs can uproot trees and power lines, completely erase visibility, and contain particles that can be harmful to breathing.
Cold winds from storms pick up huge amounts of soil and sand and carry them across the landscape. The dense wall can be miles wide, thousands of feet high, and last from a few minutes to an hour. Haboobs typically form after monsoon storm activity, although strong winds alone are sometimes enough to evoke them.
2 Ephemeral pools
Also known as “desert potholes”, ephemeral pools are seasonal collections of water that form in natural pools. The ponds fill up during the rainy season and provide temporary habitats for migrating birds. Desert animals frequent potholes for drinks, and plants soak up water they don’t get during the dry season.
Microscopic invertebrates sometimes emerge in ephemeral ecosystems, adding another layer of life to the desert. Although many people enjoy swimming in ephemeral pools, it can disrupt the already fragile ecosystem and therefore should not be disturbed.
1 Moving rocks
Despite some of the hottest temperatures ever, Death Valley National Park is a landscape everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. Tons of visitors make their way to the park’s dry lake bed, Racetrack Playa, to witness a quirk that has gone unrecognized for many years. Boulders and boulders of all shapes and sizes move across the playa, leaving behind clear traces of where they came from.
The phenomenon has given rise to many conspiracy theories, some of the most bizarre claiming alien intervention. The reality is arguably more impressive, however. The weather conditions must be absolutely aligned to cause the movement of the rocks. After a rain, the cool night air freezes in patches that slowly melt and push the stones to the surface.
Next: Archaeologists Want To Explain These 15 Weird Desert Findings (But Can’t)
Top 10 Vacation Destinations for Families
About the Author