The scientific tourist #1 — the oncoming dunes

Happy new year, everybody!

Since we’re in a new year, I thought it would be a good time to roll out a new blog feature. I’ve uploaded to Flickr a number of pictures that I’ve taken over the years — and all deal (at least peripherally) with some aspect of science.

What I plan on doing is picking one of these images every week or two, and discussing it a bit in a blog post. The idea is to be somewhat analogous to “Astronomy Picture of the Day” and such, but with a broader range of subjects, and on a less-frequent basis. All the images I present will be from places I’ve visited — and so, places that you could (at least theoretically) visit on your own in the future.

Oncoming dunes

The inaugural picture is from White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico (USA). While most photography you’ll see of White Sands is of the sand itself, I thought the edge of the sand was more interesting. You see, if you visit White Sands you won’t see a featureless expanse of white — you’ll see fields of dunes, slowly moving across a gypsum-saturated landscape.

The dunes themselves move a few inches or few feet every year. As a result, some of the plant life between the dunes has an opportunity to adapt to its changing circumstances. The dunes are made of gypsum sand — and no plant that I’m aware of is able to live with its roots in the stuff, even if it is damp. But many of the plants being slowly covered by a dune are able to grow quickly enough to keep their tops above the sand, while their roots remain in the soil below the dune.

For many plants, this strategy only buys time. By growing through the dune to keep its top in the sunlight, a plant can become dependent on the dune for structural support. When the dune moves on, the plant collapses under its own weight, and dies in the process.

Click on the above picture to get to the Flickr version of this image — it’ll give you lots of options for resizing and otherwise manipulating the source photo.

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One Response to The scientific tourist #1 — the oncoming dunes

  1. Pingback: Sorting Out Science » Blog Archive » The scientific tourist #11 — gypsum pedestals

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