CALIFORNIA DESERTS
Michael Ellis

Deserts are generally defined as regions having less than 10″ of precipitation per year. But more important than the lack of rain is the unpredictability. Sometimes there are flash floods and then it may not rain for a decade. Deserts have extremes of temperature. Death Valley regularly gets to 125 in July but some deserts are bitterly cold (Antarctica for example). Powerful wind and intense sunlight dominate. The soils are poor in nutrients and plant cover is sparse.

In California we are lucky to have three different types of deserts. In the far south in San Diego and Imperial Counties is the Coloradan Desert. It is part of the Sonoran Desert. This region has low elevations ranging from below sea level to 2000′, the winters are frost-free, summers are brutally hot, most of the rain in the form of summer storms brought by warm moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. The plant most associated with these desert is the bizarrely wonderful octotillo.Heading north we come to the Mojave Desert. This is the smallest desert by area in North American but the largest in California. From Lancaster to Needles and way north past Death Valley. It mostly ranges between 2-4,000′ with some mountaintops peaking above 10,000 and some valleys below sea level. The summers can be hot: the winters cold with much of the moisture falling as snow. The characteristic plant is the Joshua Tree, a fantastic member of the Lily Family. And finally there’s the Great Basin Desert. It is found from the north end of Owens Valley at Bishop all the way up to the extreme northeast corner of the state in Modoc County. This is the high desert, the elevation ranges from 4 to 7000′. Winters are bitterly cold. Precipitation is distributed throughout the year both in winter and summer storms. It has a very limited growing season and the dominant plant is the Great Basin Sagebrush.

In all these deserts human population is low, plant and animal diversity high, aesthetic appeal is off the chart, and solitude in great supply. What a grand state.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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November 18, 2010