|Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah. (Photograph by Peter Kresan.)|
Nearly 50 percent of desert surfaces are plains where eolian deflation--removal of fine-grained material by the wind--has exposed loose gravels consisting predominantly of pebbles but with occasional cobbles.
The remaining surfaces of arid lands are composed of exposed bedrock outcrops, desert soils, and fluvial deposits including alluvial fans, playas, desert lakes, and oases. Bedrock outcrops commonly occur as small mountains surrounded by extensive erosional plains.
Oases are vegetated areas moistened by springs, wells, or by irrigation. Many are artificial. Oases are often the only places in deserts that support crops and permanent habitation.
Underground channels carry water from nearby mountains into the Turpan Depression of
China. If the channels were not covered, the water would evaporate quickly when it
reached the hot, dry desert land.
Caliche is a reddish-brown to white layer found in many desert soils. Caliche
commonly occurs as nodules or as coatings on mineral grains formed by the complicated
interaction between water and carbon dioxide released by plant roots or by decaying
|Sparse, very dry, single-species vegetation in Death Valley, California.||Vegetation amidst the desert pavement of the Sonoran Desert (Photograph by John Olsen.)|
Deserts typically have a plant cover that is sparse but enormously diverse. The Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest has the most complex desert vegetation on Earth. The giant saguaro cacti provide nests for desert birds and serve as "trees" of the desert. Saguaro grow slowly but may live 200 years. When 9 years old, they are about 15 centimeters high. After about 75 years, the cacti are tall and develop their first branches. When fully grown, saguaro are 15 meters tall and weigh as much as 10 tons. They dot the Sonoran and reinforce the general impression of deserts as cacti-rich land.
Although cacti are often thought of as characteristic desert plants, other types of
plants have adapted well to the arid environment. They include the pea family and
sunflower family. Cold deserts have grasses and shrubs as dominant vegetation.
|The Wei River in the Loess Plateau, China. (Photograph by I-Ming Chou.)|
Though little rain falls in deserts, deserts receive runoff from ephemeral, or short-lived,
streams fed by rain and snow from adjacent highlands. These streams fill the channel
with a slurry of mud and commonly transport considerable quantities of sediment for a day
or two. Although most deserts are in basins with closed, or interior drainage, a few deserts
are crossed by 'exotic' rivers that derive their water from outside the desert. Such rivers
infiltrate soils and evaporate large amounts of water on their journeys through the deserts,
but their volumes are such that they maintain their continuity. The Nile, the Colorado, and
the Yellow are exotic rivers that flow through deserts to dellver thelr sediments to the sea.
Running water created this canyon
in arid Big Bend National Park, southwest Texas.
Underground channels carry water from nearby mountains
into the Turpan Depression of China. If the channels were
not covered, the water would evaporate quickly when it
reached the hot, dry desert air.