desert

Posted by Ellen

A couple of weeks ago, in the desert near Pinnacle Peak, outside of Phoenix, people who stepped out of their cars to savor the sunset felt the wind pick up suddenly, blowing hard and cold and carrying . . . raindrops? Really?

Careful examination of clouds in the distance revealed ragged curtains of rain showers swirling down just below the cloud line. Apparently, most of the rain evaporated long before moistening the dust, but we can vouch for several drops, perhaps even several dozens of drops, that fell all the way to earth.

After a few minutes, the wind died down, and the storm, such as it was, no longer was.

Posted by Ellen

Looks like yesterday's g'mornin was one silly mess: wrong boy, and even wrong uncle.

This picture shows the real Hank Stein atop the twisted chimney at Ancient Art near Moab, Utah. Yesterday's picture was of some other somebody.

And the uncle who gave him a sort of shout out on Facebook–"Get down from there this instant!" That was his Uncle Rich. Yesterday's posting attributed those immortal words to some other uncle.

Apologies all around.

Posted by Ellen

Well, of course now that our American space program is shut down because of hateful people in the House of Representatives, the brand new Landsat 8 satellite that you and I paid for, which had just started phoning in dramatic new views of our planet, has gone dark. But fortunately, many other countries have legislatures that don't seem to go quite so insane over efforts to help people get medical care, and so new earth imagery from foreign satellites is still available to us.

This is the view from Kompsat 2, a Korean satellite, as it crossed southern Africa above the Namib Desert on the morning of October 5. What appears to be blue water is actually an ancient riverbed, almost entirely dry for millions of years; the white streaks are bone-dry salt flats.

Click to zoom in and see roads in the riverbed and some black dots that represent the only vegetation for hundreds of square miles; These desert shrubs survive on groundwater, of which there is hardly any; such as is there is, however, collects deep underneath the riverbed, below the gullies where water does trickle on those rare occasions when it rains here. Annual precipitation is less than half an inch on average, though it is supplemented a bit by coastal fog.

Note the short spur leading off the main road near the middle of the scene and ending at the base of a dune. This is the route to a parking lot at Dune 45, a thousand-foot high sand dune popular with tourists.

Posted by Ellen

The Painted Mountains in Death Valley, California.

Posted by Ellen

The new library building of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, designed by South African architect Andre Spies, sits at the edge of the Sahara Desert– for all intents and purposes at the edge of the world.

Timbuktu has always been miles from nowhere, and the sands of the Saharan nowhere are now blowing through its streets. Years of desertification have spread the Sahara southward, through Timbuktu and beyond across much of Mali and surrounding parts of West Africa.

The Institute was built in part as an archive to preserve ancient documents and religious texts, many of which had survived to the present day by being buried out in the desert. Its architecture was intended to echo the vernacular style, in which most buildings are constructed of mud, with thick, fortress-like walls. Needless to say, many Malians criticize the design as far too modern.

Posted by Ellen

Southern Namibia, as seen from the Landsat 7 satellite orbiting 700 kilometers above the earth's surface.

Posted by Ellen

The mountain moonscape of Terlingua, Texas, illuminated (ever so slightly) by the moon at noon.

Posted by Ellen

The desert of northern Saudi Arabia is among the most barren places on earth. But beginning in 1986, when water wells were drilled into deep aquifers, vast stretches of desert land have been irrigated for agricultural use. So much of Saudi Arabia is now farmland that the fields are visible from space, as shown here in this photo taken last week by astronauts on the International Space Station. The circular fields are each about one kilometer in diameter.

This is energy-intensive agriculture; it takes a lot of fossil fuel to pump water from so deep underground and to operate the center-pivot irrigation systems that keep the wheat fields and vegetable patches green despite bone-dry desert air. But Saudi Arabia has a lot of fossil fuel, and its desert agriculture is expanding rapidly.

(The water in the aquifers is itself fossilized, left over from the Ice Age, before this part of the world became so hot and arid.)

Posted by Ellen

A Terlingua Sunset, by Lindy Cook Severns.

Terlingua encompasses thousands of acres of sparsely settled desert country along the Rio Grande in far west Texas, between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park. There's cinnabar ore in those mountains, enough to support profitable mercury mines a hundred years ago, but nowadays the only mercury miners left are the ones in the Terlingua cemetery.

Many of today's Terlinguans live more or less off the grid; land is inexpensive, but bringing in electricity costs something like $10,000 per pole. The landowners are only lightly supervised by local government, but like big-city condo owners they are regulated by an owners' association, which employs a full-time staff to maintain community wells and roads and to operate an income-generating campground and lodge.

Vanessa Boyd, director of the landowners' organization, which is known as Terlingua Ranch, is a musician as well as a land manager. She just released a new album last week, which incorporates songs she composed in preparation for a 2010 concert tour to Nepal.