Although weather may influence visits to Craters of the Moon, climate is responsible for the land and life found here. The monument's dry climate is typical of the high desert, with most precipitation coming through winter snows.
Year-round aridity preserves the delicate lava features, as moisture has little chance to erode the rock into soil for plants. The result is a landscape largely free of plant life on 2,000 year old lava flows that appear startlingly fresh.
Life in an Extreme Environment
Little precipitation. Drying winds. Extreme temperatures. It all seems like a recipe for a lifeless landscape. Yet a variety of plants and animals eke out a living provided they find some way to tolerate, avoid, or overcome these obstacles.
Sagebrush and other drought-tolerant shrubs and grasses dominate those places where soil is available. Sagebrush employs a web of roots near the surface coupled with a few deep ones to supply water during periods of extended drought.
To reduce its demand for moisture the plant grows two very different sets of leaves, making the most of what little water is available. Large three-lobed leaves grown during moist springtime conditions are dropped by midsummer and replaced with smaller leaves to minimize water loss during the rest of the year.
On the other hand, the pika, a small cranny dwelling cousin to the rabbit, thrives at Craters of the Moon despite climatic conditions that should drive the animal into the mountains. Pikas typically make their home in the small, safe crevices of rocky talus slopes high in the mountains. Unable to tolerate air temperatures above 80° F (27° C), their populations seem immune to the searing heat of summer on the lava fields. Using the cool shade of cavities within the lava provides refuge from predators and deadly heat alike. They venture out in search of food at dawn and dusk, when temperatures are milder.
Pikas at Craters of the Moon face an uncertain future as global warming may lead to an even hotter and drier climate locally.
Though seemingly remote from big cities, air quality at Craters of the Moon is influenced by pollution sources near and far. Pollution impairs everything from plant growth to scenic views.
Because of the relatively pristine environment found at Craters of the Moon, the monument recently became a host site for the US Climate Reference Network program. Host sites collect a variety of weather-related data including temperature, precipitation, solar radiation, and surface winds. Spanning five decades, the data will provide scientists with the most accurate information to date on emerging climate trends across North America.
Did You Know?
In 1969 Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Joe Engle and Eugene Cernan visited Craters of the Moon. They explored the lava landscape in order to learn the basics of volcanic geology in preparation for future trips to the moon.