Shifting, Ever-Changing ~ White Sands National Monument ~ Alamogordo, NM

As we looked west to the San Andres Mountain range rising from the desert floor, wave after wave of blinding white seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, rolling out to the horizon.  We had arrived at one of the world’s great natural wonders, White Sands National Monument.

miles of white sand

Approximately 15 miles outside of the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico lies the world’s largest gypsum dune field, 275 square miles of white, glistening sand dunes, ever-shifting, ever-changing.  Technically this should not be here, as gypsum is soluble in water, which makes it a very rare form of sand.  Typically, rain and snow high in the mountains carry dissolved gypsum to rivers, which then flow to the sea.  But the Tularosa Basin is not typical; no river drains this desert land so the gypsum that collects here becomes trapped, along with various other sediments.

During periods of rain or snow, water evaporates in the Tularosa Basin, breaking the gypsum down into a crystalline form known as selenite.  Freezing, thawing, wetness and dryness break the crystals down even further into fine grains of sand.  As the wind tosses them along the ground, theses tiny grains crash into one another, scratching their surface.  These scratches change the way light reflects off the sand particles, causing them to appear white.

White Sands is a living laboratory, providing scientists an understanding into our past and a peek into our future, as they explore the gypsum dune field on Mars.

As we drove the 8-mile loop road through the monument, we had the feeling we would begin sliding at any moment, as it appeared we were driving on an icy, snow-packed road, with snowdrifts as far as the eye could see.  I wondered what keeps dunes like this, so exposed to the wind and weather, from simply blowing away.  New Mexico does have its fair share of high winds with so much open desert.  I learned that the dunes can shift west to east up to 30 feet per year but it is ground water, found 12-36″ below the surface that keeps the dunes at 100% humidity year-round, helping to stabilize these massive sand piles.

Looking out over this vast expanse of white, you would think that nothing could live here, but many species of plants and animals do just that, having adapted and evolved over time to a white pallor that provides the perfect camouflage.  The bleached earless lizard is one who is coping well to a life without color.

Terry, looking out over the Sacramento Mountains, at sunset
Terry, looking out over the Sacramento Mountains, at sunset

Many come here to slide down the massive dunes, purchasing wax-coated sleds in the visitor center’s gift shop.  I decided to let the kid in me run barefoot up and down the dunes, while Terry, who had cut his toe earlier in the day, kept shoes one, shaking his head as he watched me run up one dune and down another.

As the sun began to dip below the San Andres Mountains, we sat watching in awe, as this wonder of nature was wrapped in a golden glow.

Sunset over the San Andres Mountains
Sunset over the San Andres Mountains

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