There’s something otherworldly about the dunes of White Sands National Monument. They appear out of nowhere in an otherwise dirt-brown basin rimmed by mountains, but once you crest the first dune all you see is miles of white. Gypsum sand scatters sunlight in a blinding ocean of undulations unlike anywhere else on Earth. When I climbed them barefoot this past week I never got over my disorientation: was this a warm snow-scape? A dry beach? Or something even more alien?
Some might say these 275 square miles of mineral glitter resemble their vision of the lunar surface. After all, this pale sand is ground-down selenite, a crystalline form of gypsum named centuries ago for the Greek goddess of the moon.
In reality this region has less in common with the moon than with the Red Planet. Mars also has a region of selenite sand near its north pole that’s sculpted into dunes by thin CO₂ breezes.Compare the aerial texture of airless lunar regolith, Martian gypsum fields, and the white sand right here in New Mexico...
This past Saturday I was briefly but genuinely concerned that my dog Tycho would be injured by tumbleweeds. From a distance, they seem almost cotton ball–like: airy and round, perfectly suited to catching a breeze and bouncing along their merry way. Up close, though, they reveal themselves as spiny plant carcasses, sometimes several feet in diameter, stiff enough to scratch up cars and lacerate skin. When the wind picks up and whips them at you in 60 mph ambushes, watch out.
The term “tumbleweed” refers to a whole slew of plant species that go all out to spread their offspring each year. So what makes these iconic invaders unique and enables them to take over the Southwest each year?
Spring is upon us here in Albuquerque—buds, blossoms, and allergies to boot. It seems everyone at the office is raiding the tissue stock, huffing nasal sprays, and bemoaning the side effects of Benadryl compared to Claritin.
Meanwhile… I’m fine. Which is odd, because I’ve always considered myself to be rather badly afflicted by seasonal allergies. Growing up I associated warm weather with the onslaught of familiar symptoms: dry eyes, tight scratchy throat, runny nose, and fits of sneezing.
Not this year! This is my first spring living in the Southwest, and apparently the region suits me. My old enemies, ragweed and grasses, don’t fare well in central New Mexico, so I’m safely removed by several hundred miles. Did my immune system “inoculate” itself against the pollen of New York and not the pollen of New Mexico?
New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment for a reason: its landscape takes stunning new forms at every turn, from rocky mountain peaks to deep-cut gorges, flat-topped mesas to rolling sand dunes. Then there are the hoodoos, geological features so seemingly magical that elsewhere they’re known as goblins or fairy chimneys.
Hoodoos are naturally-occurring stone spires that dot dry basins like enormous mushrooms. Unlike fruiting fungi, though, they didn’t sprout upward from the ground—rather, they held their own while the rock around them was weathered away by millennia of water and wind. Worn-down expanses of rock are one things, but how were these free-standing hoodoos left behind?
Sorry to say it, but New Mexico is tearing the country apart.
Or, to be more precise, it’s stretching it apart. We’re talking plate tectonics, in which slabs of the Earth’s rigid lithosphere drift atop the stiff-but-fluid mantle, gradually rearranging the oceans and continents. What’s so special about the Rio Grande compared to other rivers around the nation?
I love waking up in Albuquerque on clear mornings: a glance out my west-facing window often reveals a couple hot air balloons dotting the horizon.
Albuquerque is the self-proclaimed “Ballooning Capital of the World,” and ballooning is popular here year-round thanks to well-suited weather. Cloudless skies and mild temperatures are common across New Mexico, but the terrain around this city in particular sometimes shapes a favorable wind pattern known as the “Box.” What’s so special about the air above Duke City that attracts balloonists by the dozens?
At an average of 5,300 feet above sea level—5,352 at the Sunport, as the ABQ airport is adorably named—Albuquerque is officially a mile-high city. That means the atmosphere is pretty thin around here.
After all, it’s common knowledge that the higher you go, the thinner it gets: skiers get light-headed around Boulder (10,000 feet), climbers wear oxygen tanks up Mount Everest (29,000 feet), and airplane cabins are pressurized to keep us conscious (36,000 feet).
But can you explain why?Why isn’t the planet wrapped in a blanket of evenly-dense air from the ground to the edge of space?
Still debating which branch of science is best? Maybe Randall Munroe’s “purity” ordering will help you consider their merits. Or you can wait another week and start judging based on our discussions of science in New Mexico!