Death Valley National Park Nature and Science

Death Valley: The name is forbidding and gloomy. Yet here in the valley, much of it below sea level, you can find colorful badlands, snow-covered peaks, beautiful sand dunes, rugged canyons, and the hottest driest spot in North America. G.K. Gilbert, a geologist who worked in the area in the 1870s, noted that the rock formations were "beautifully delineated on the slopes of the distant mountains, revealing at a glance relations that in a fertile country would appear only as the results of extended and laborious investigation." On any given summer day, the valley floor shimmers silently in the heat. Five months of the year unmerciful heat dominates the scene, and for the next seven the heat releases its grip only slightly. Rain rarely gets past the guardian mountains, but the little rain that does fall is the life force of the wildflowers that transform the desert into a vast garden. Despite the harshness and severity of the environment, more than 1000 kinds of plants live within the park. Those on the valley floor have adapted to a desert life by a variety of means. Some have roots that go down 10 times the height of a person. Some plants have a root system that lies just below the surface but extends out in all directions. Others have leaves and stems that allow very little evaporation and loss of life giving water. With height moisture increases until on the high peaks there are forests of juniper, mountain mahogany, pinyon pine, limber pine, and even bristle-cone pine. Often the peaks surrounding the valley are snow-covered. Wildlife has also learned to deal with the heat. Animals that live in the desert are mainly nocturnal. Once the sun sets, the temperature usually falls quickly because of the dry night air. Night, the time of seeming vast emptiness, is actually the time of the comings and goings of innumerable small animals. Larger animals, such as the desert bighorn, live in the cooler higher elevations. Included within the Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve, Death Valley is an active world of contrasts and extremes. It is much more than its name.

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