Last updated: September 30, 2016
Monsoon Season –Lacey Thomas
It takes a special kind of person to love the desert. Plants are covered in stickers and thorns. Snakes and scorpions hide in plain sight. The heat can be debilitating. The browns and grays blend together in such a way that unexpectedly green colors almost hurt your eyes. This is the idea of desert many people carry in their mind's eye. It's certainly true to an extent. Then, the monsoons arrive.
The far western horizon begins to darken. An almost colorless sky begins to become faintly gray and slowly darkens to slate. Winds pick up as the clouds settle over the mountains and roll toward Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Distant thunder rolls across the landscape. Rain begins to pour from the clouds as though a spigot from the heavens has opened. The monsoon winds and their accompanying rain has arrived.
For the next few short weeks the desert becomes a glowing, vibrant place compared to its normal state. Cryptobiotic soil crust immediately greens up.Leaves erupt on what appeared to be dead sticks.Flowers appear almost overnight. The rains will quickly dissipate, so the life here has adapted to take advantage whenever possible.
Small depressions in exposed rock called potholes will fill during these rains. Sometimes potholes contain tiny eggs from creatures that live in the pools. Rains trigger the eggs to hatch, and these small crustaceans must grow to adulthood, mate, and lay eggs before the potholes dry up. Larger animals such as birds, deer, and mountain lions use these seasonal cisterns as watering holes.
The rains also make their presence known in the cave—it just takes time.Carlsbad Cavern is made mostly of limestone. The rock is like a sponge: full ofholes and holds large quantities of water. As the rain sinks into the porous limestone, it beings to pick up calcite. It takes time for the calcite-rich water to reach the large open areas of the cave. For example it usually takes between twelve and eighteen months for precipitation to reach the Big Room 750 feet below the visitor center. That means the water you hear dripping when you walk by Crystal Spring Dome in June might have been snow on the ground two Decembers passed! Water levels in the cave do fluctuate naturally, and the monsoon precipitation is often how they recharge.
For about eight or so short weeks the desert puts on a new persona.Strong winds, violent thunderstorms, and flash floods combine to take over the landscape and life. When the monsoons dissipate for another year, they leave a renewed desert behind with the hint of autumn in the air.