White Sands, NM 2013


     While driving my way to Texas, I drove through south-central New Mexico.  There, I was able to explore the White Sands National Monument. White Sands National Monument is located in south-central New Mexico, within the Tularosa Basin, at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert. This is North America’s largest desert, the majority of which is located to our south in Mexico. This desert region amounts to about 455,000 square kilometers, stretching some 1900 km south from Alamogordo, New Mexico, to the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.

New Mexico area map

     The obvious natural feature of this monument is the pure gypsum dunes, but perhaps less obvious are the sources of the dunes, Lake Lucero and Alkali Flat.   Gypsum is made of Calcium Sulfate.  

White Sands National Monument; New Mexico USA 2013

     Lake Lucero and the Alkali Flat are the result of the gradual drying of an extensive Pleistocene lake (Lake Otero) that was rich in the mineral gypsum, with the dunes being the result of weathering and wind transport of these exposed surfaces.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico; USA 2013

     Along the margins of Lake Lucero, translucent golden-yellow crystals of selenite are exposed on the soil surface. These calcium sulfate (gypsum) crystals grow in saturated mud beneath the remains of Lake Otero and may reach lengths of four feet. When exposed on the surface, these crystals are subject to weathering and erosion and may eventually become gypsum powder and sand grains, which can be carried by winds as dust or sand storms. These wind-transported particles, along with those from Lake Lucero and Alkali Flat, are often deposited to the north as the white sands of White Sands National Monument. “Fossil” dunes found east and south of the main dunefield offer information about historical wind and climate regimes.

Notice how the brush, protects the gypsum sand below from being carried away by the wind, creating a mound underneath.

     Theoretically 200 cm of water a year evaporates from the lake.  The most active dunes can move up to 9 m per year.  A few species of plant such as yucca and cottonwood mange to survive on the edges of the shifting dunes.  Pictured below, I’m standing on a dune that appears to have a yucca plant growing on it.  However, it’s ribbon-like leaves and tiny flowers, instead of bell-like blossoms of the yucca, are the characteristic which make it a member of the lily family.  It is the Sotol. The high sugar content of the plant base has value for creating a potent beverage called the “sotol”.

White Sands National Monument; New Mexico; USA 2013

     New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, home to the Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range, has long been a hub of experimentation and innovation that has done much to advance our understanding of the cosmos.   On the eastern bench of Alamogordo, nearby the White Sands National Monument, the New Mexico Museum of Space History showcases the areas long history of rocket launches, satellites, and simulations that helped make human space flight possible.  I took the time to visit it, (pictured below).

Sonic Wind No.1 at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, NM

     Pictured above, the Sonic Wind No.1.  On December 10, 1954, Dr. John Paul Stapp rode this rocket sled, called the Sonic Wind No.1, to a speed of 632 miles per hour.  The objective of this test, which took place at Holloman Air Force Base, was to measure human response to sudden deceleration.

V-2 Rocket Remnant

     Pictured above, is a remnant of a V-2 rocket.  The “Vengeance Weapon-2” (V-2) was the world’s first long-range ballistic missile.  The V-2 was used by Nazi Germany near the end of World War II as a terror weapon against London, Antwerp, and other allied targets.  After the war, German scientists assisted the U.S. Military in developing the V-2 technology to be used for defense and early space exploration.  The components pictured above were used for research, and recovered from the White Sands Missile Range.

One of the historical Mercury Capsules
A educational sign found near the Mercury Capsule, pictured above

     Between 1,000 and 1,500 years ago in New Mexico, a series of fractures opened on the floor of the Tularosa Basin and released thick flows of lava, thus forming a huge, black, primordial-looking terrain.  In the Valley of Fires it reached a thickness of 50 m and buried everything in its path, apart from a few sandstone hills that jut above the lava surface like misplaced islands.  The Carrizozo Malpais is the name of this large lava flow on the west side of Carrizozo, New Mexico, on the northern part of the Tularosa Basin between Sierra Blanca to the southeast and the Oscura Mountains to the west.

“The Valley of Fires”: New Mexico; USA 2013

     The lava making up the flow came from Little Black Peak, about 16 km north-northwest of Carrizozo. It reached about 64 km south-southwest along the bottom of Tularosa Basin in two active flows. At their southern end, the lava flows are about 19 km north of the dune fields of White Sands National Park.

Little Black Peak at The Valley of Fires, NM

     The Valley of Fires is a good place to see the different rock formations that lava can make as it flows and cools.  In some places the rock is rough and sharp, in others the surface has a smoother, ropy texture created by lava with more dissolved gas in it, (pictured below).

A close-up view of the lava flows. Notice the pahoehoe (Hawaiian for “ropey”) lava flow structure.

     The valley also has eight lava tube, where molten rock once flowed through subsurface channels.  As you can see, plant and animal life abounds in the Malpais. Windblown topsoil vegetates cholla, sotol and
cedar. Even pinon and yucca find foot-holds here. But perhaps the most interesting phenomenon of the lava is the animal life. The mice are dark brown or black. The same species a few miles away in White Sands National Monument are light-gray and white. This is also true of bugs and lizards; in the Sands, nature has whitewashed them. But here in the malpais she has lacquered them dark brown and black. These tiny creatures are the only things that haven’t been conquered by the lava. They have taken it over by adapting themselves to it.

The Valley of Fires; New Mexico; USA; 2013
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