Earth Science A closer look: Warm Desert Biome

Discussion in 'Earth Science' started by pineappleupsidedown, Dec 2, 2004.

  1. pineappleupsidedown

    pineappleupsidedown Premium Member


    Deserts cover about one fifth of the Earth’s surface and occur where rainfall is less than 50 cm/year. Although most deserts, such as the Sahara of North Africa and the deserts of the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and Australia, occur at low latitudes, another kind of desert, cold deserts, occur in the basin and range area of Utah and Nevada and in parts of western Asia. Most deserts have a considerable amount of specialized vegetation, as well as specialized vertebrate and invertebrate animals. Soils often have abundant nutrients because they need only water to become very productive and have little or no organic matter. Disturbances are common in the form of occasional fires or cold weather, and sudden, infrequent, but intense rains that cause flooding.

    There are relatively few large mammals in deserts because most are not capable of storing sufficient water and withstanding the heat. Deserts often provide little shelter from the sun for large animals. The dominant animals of warm deserts are nonmammalian vertebrates, such as reptiles. Mammals are usually small, like the kangaroo mice of North American deserts.

    Hot/Dry Desert

    The four major North American deserts of this type are the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Mojave and Great Basin. Others outside the U.S. include the Southern Asian realm, Neotropical (South and Central America), Ethiopian (Africa) and Australian.

    The seasons are generally warm throughout the year and very hot in the summer. The winters usually bring little rainfall. Temperatures exhibit daily extremes because the atmosphere contains little humidity to block the Sun’s rays. Desert surfaces receive a little more than twice the solar radiation received by humid regions and lose almost twice as much heat at night. Many mean annual temperatures range from 20-25° C. The extreme maximum ranges from 43.5-49° C. Minimum temperatures sometimes drop to -18° C.

    Rainfall is usually very low and/or concentrated in short bursts between long rainless periods. Evaporation rates regularly exceed rainfall rates. Sometimes rain starts falling and evaporates before reaching the ground. Rainfall is lowest on the Atacama Desert of Chile, where it averages less than 1.5 cm. Some years are even rainless. Inland Sahara also receives less than 1.5 cm a year. Rainfall in American deserts is higher—almost 28 cm a year.

    Soils are course-textured, shallow, rocky or gravely with good drainage and have no subsurface water. They are coarse because there is less chemical weathering. The finer dust and sand particles are blown elsewhere, leaving heavier pieces behind.

    Canopy in most deserts is very rare. Plants are mainly ground-hugging shrubs and short woody trees. Leaves are “replete” (fully supported with nutrients) with water-conserving characteristics. They tend to be small, thick and covered with a thick cuticle (outer layer). In the cacti, the leaves are much-reduced (to spines) and photosynthetic activity is restricted to the stems. Some plants open their stomata (microscopic openings in the epidermis of leaves that allow for gas exchange) only at night when evaporation rates are lowest. These plants include: yuccas, ocotillo, turpentine bush, prickly pears, false mesquite, sotol, ephedras, agaves and brittlebush.

    The animals include small nocturnal (active at night) carnivores. The dominant animals are burrowers and kangaroo rats. There are also insects, arachnids, reptiles and birds. The animals stay inactive in protected hideaways during the hot day and come out to forage at dusk, dawn or at night, when the desert is cooler.

    Semiarid Deserts

    The major deserts of this type include the sagebrush of Utah, Montana and Great Basin. They also include the Nearctic realm (North America, Newfoundland, Greenland, Russia, Europe and northern Asia).

    The summers are moderately long and dry, and like hot deserts, the winters normally bring low concentrations of rainfall. Summer temperatures usually average between 21-27° C. It normally does not go above 38° C and evening temperatures are cool, at around 10° C. Cool nights help both plants and animals by reducing moisture loss from transpiration, sweating and breathing. Furthermore, condensation of dew caused by night cooling may equal or exceed the rainfall received by some deserts. As in the hot desert, rainfall is often very low and/or concentrated. The average rainfall ranges from 2-4 cm annually.

    The soil can range from sandy and fine-textured to loose rock fragments, gravel or sand. It has a fairly low salt concentration, compared to deserts which receive a lot of rain (acquiring higher salt concentrations as a result). In areas such as mountain slopes, the soil is shallow, rocky or gravely with good drainage. In the upper bajada (lower slopes) they are coarse-textured, rocky, well-drained and partly “laid by rock bench.” In the lower bajada (bottom land) the soil is sandy and fine-textured, often with “caliche hardpan.” In each case there is no subsurface water.

    The spiny nature of many plants in semiarid deserts provides protection in a hazardous environment. The large numbers of spines shade the surface enough to significantly reduce transpiration. The same may be true of the hairs on the woolly desert plants. Many plants have silvery or glossy leaves, allowing them to reflect more radiant energy. These plants often have an unfavorable odor or taste. Semiarid plants include: Creosote bush, bur sage (Franseria dumosa or F. deltoidea), white thorn, cat claw, mesquite, brittle bushes (Encelia farinosa), lyciums, and jujube.

    During the day, insects move around twigs to stay on the shady side; jack rabbits follow the moving shadow of a cactus or shrub. Naturally, many animals find protection in underground burrows where they are insulated from both heat and aridity. These animals include mammals such as the kangaroo rats, rabbits, and skunks; insects like grasshoppers and ants; reptiles are represented by lizards and snakes; and birds such as burrowing owls and the California thrasher.
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