Re: help for school project

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Posted by Ralph Klinger on November 01, 2001 at 01:47:43:

In Reply to: help for school project posted by Sara T. on October 26, 2001 at 12:00:21:

Hi Sara,

I hope that you haven't waited to the last minute on your school project. There is a lot of information that you can gather from the web on soils and related natural history for desert regions that will apply in a general sense to Death Valley. How much information you gather of course depends on your grade level, the detail required for your project, and of course your personal interest. I spent several years studying the soils in northern Death Valley and their relatively unique characteristics. Briefly, because Death Valley is so dry, the soils exhibit properties typical of what we call "aridisols." Several good web pages describe these types of soils. Check out

Alternatively, search on “desert soils” or “aridisols.”

In the U.S., the Soil Conservation Service, which is now part of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), produced Soil Surveys for those areas of the country that are largely agricultural. Because Death Valley is so arid, the soils so salty, and irrigation water in this part of the country is scarce, agricultural activities have been essentially non-existent. So detailed information about soils commonly found in Soil Surveys do not exist for Death Valley. However, in recent years the NRCS has been mapping the soils in Death Valley as part of a program of mapping the natural resources in the National Parks. This survey is not yet completed, but as I mentioned before, the more general characteristics of desert soils that you can find at many sites on the web will apply to Death Valley.

Similarly, the climate conditions in Death Valley can be found by visiting the National Weather Service or NOAA web pages and searching for data on the weather station at Furnace Creek. There are temperature and precipitation records at Furnace Creek from 1912 to present. If my memory serves me correctly, the mean annual temperature is about 27 degrees Celsius or about 80 degrees Fahrenheit and mean annual precipitation is about 40 mm/yr or less than 2 inches/yr. There have been several years when there was no measured precipitation in Death Valley at all. An evaporation rate of almost 4 meters or 155 inches is the highest ever measured in the U.S. One of my favorite quotes about the climate in Death Valley comes from Charlie Hunt who wrote that "During the biblical period when it rained for forty days and forty nights, Death Valley is said to have received a quarter inch."

Because Death Valley is located in southeastern California, the general weather patterns are influenced largely by systems moving across the area from the Pacific. Thus, the wettest part of the year or the "growing season" is commonly in the winter months (December to March). It is not uncommon for Death Valley to receive significant amounts of rain from the summer monsoon that can push northward from the Gulf of Mexico. Commonly this precipitation arrives in DV as intense, short duration thunderstorms, but these storms are often very localized. Death Valley is well known for wildflower displays in the early spring (March and April). The magnitude of the bloom is directly related to the amount precipitation that falls in the valley during the winter months. Wet years, lots of flowers; dry years, not so many. Again, check out web pages on "desert wildflowers" to learn more about the unique characteristics of these very short lived plants that have adapted to harsh desert environments. Also, check out

for some of the plants found in the California deserts including Death Valley. A good book on wildflowers is titled "Death Valley Wildflowers" by Roxana Ferris. However, depending upon where you live, you may not be able to find a copy. A good web page on Death Valley wildflowers with lists of plants can be found at

My top five desert plants that can be found in DV that I find very interesting include the mesquite trees, desert fan palms (not the date palms found around Furnace Creek), spiny chorizanthe, desert puffball, and believe it or not, green algae.

Mesquite trees are common throughout the southwestern U.S. and are often considered to be a pest. However, in Death Valley they have provided both wildlife and Native Americans an important source of food. They have adapted a taproot that enables them to reach groundwater and survive in extremely arid regions. There are many small groves or "bosques" of mesquite in DV. The campground in northern DV at Mesquite Spring is centered on a very old stand of mesquite trees. In addition, Mesquite Flat, just north of Stovepipe Wells and the dune field, is named after the many mesquite trees growing on the valley floor and stabilize many of the dunes.

The desert fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) also grows in DV and can be seen along Furnace Creek near Texas Spring, at the Park Headquarters, and at numerous other sites near springs in the valley. While this palm is native to California, there is some debate about whether they are native to Death Valley or if they were introduced.

In my mind, the strangest plants found in DV are the algae that can be found growing on the bottoms of light colored or somewhat translucent rocks on the alluvial fans in the valley. They are very unique in the sense that they occupy a very limited spot in a very harsh environment. These plants utilize the moisture that collects on the underside of the surface stones of desert pavements and carry on photosynthesis with the light it receives through the stone. A fraction of an inch either direction, up or down, and the conditions are deadly for the algae.

Spiny chorizanthe is a wildflower that leaves behind a very spiny skeleton after the plant dies. They seem to be everywhere because invariably whenever I sit down to rest while hiking, I either sit on one or put my hand down on one. This and the desert puffball are described in Roxana Ferris's book and may be included in other books on desert plants such as the Audubon Society Nature Guides.

You can get information about desert animals in much the same manner. My favorites for animals you can find in the Mojave Desert and in DV are the pupfish, sidewinder rattlesnakes, desert tortoise, packrats, roadrunners, and coyotes. Each has their own unique abilities to survive in Death Valley and they seem to do quite well. Search on any of them and you will find all you ever wanted to know. If you like to read about the deserts of the southwestern U.S., you might see if you can find a copy of "The Mysterious Lands" by Ann Zwinger. It is one of my favorite books.

Sorry for the length of my response, but I find the desert and Death Valley in particular very interesting. I hope it helps. Good luck with your project, hope you have fun with it.


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