Sunday, December 5, 2010

Evolution of the Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert of the Southwest U.S. and Northwest Mexico is a product of its latitude, the global climate and the regional topography. Lying along one of the desert bands (which run just north and just south of the Tropics), this arid ecosystem receives copious sunshine and is subjected to prolonged periods of high pressure, below which the air is sinking. This atmospheric condition retards cloud formation and both warms and dries the air as it plummets toward the Earth's surface.

Covering a broad basin and surrounded by highlands, the Sonoran Desert is shielded from moisture in all directions; to the northwest are the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the high Mojave Desert, to the north and east is the Mogollon Rim of the Colorado Plateau, to the southeast is the wall of the Sierra Madre Range and, to the southwest, are the mountains of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. Any air that enters the Sonoran is thus downsloping from higher terrain, causing it to heat up and dry out even further. Since the mountains and plateaus that surround it were uplifted within the past 4 to 20 million years (during the Miocene and Pliocene), the Sonoran Desert is one of the youngest ecosystems on our planet.

Throughout the Pleistocene and into the Holocene, Earth's climate has undergone dramatic shifts. When the climate cooled and glaciers advanced, the area of the Sonoran Desert decreased; in contrast, when the climate warmed (as it has done over the past 10,000 years), the Desert advanced, climbing onto the walls of the adjacent highlands. Throughout these gyrations, the regional flora and fauna have evolved, developing traits that enhanced survival in an arid environment with intense sunshine, cool nights and seasonal rains.