Delving into Deserts

show/hide words to know

Bajada: a group of fan-shaped areas on the ground where sand is deposited, starting from a small point (usually in the mountains) and widening until they reach flat ground.

Caliche: a hard rock layer found under some desert floors that is made of calcium, gravel, sand, and other materials in the ground.

Water Signs

Anza Borrego streambed

Arroyos are also called streambeds, wadis, or washes. Image by Stickpen.

The desert may seem like a barren place, with more open areas of soil surface and much less life than some other biomes. So when we look at the desert, we notice more than just the plants and animals. We also notice some peculiar patterns in the ground.

Although deserts are dry for most of the year, when they do get rain, they can get a lot. This creates all kinds of shapes and paths in the sandy desert floor. The runoff from rain creates deep, broad streambeds, called arroyos or wadis that remain dry for most of the year.

Flash flood

When there is too much rainwater for the streambeds to hold, they start to overflow. Click to enlarge the image.

The Flash Flood

Sometimes, when a lot of rain falls in the desert, the streambeds aren’t deep enough to hold all the water. The water can overflow, rushing across the hard-packed desert floor in a fast moving flash flood. These floods can cover a large section of ground, moving gravel, clay, sand, and other soil particles out of the streams and spreading them out across a broad, flat area. This broad area is called an alluvial fan. Several alluvial fans can cover a larger area, creating a bajada.

Beneath the Dirt

Though water can rush across the sand in deserts, it can also soak in very quickly in some areas. However, sometimes there are unseen barriers to water below the surface. Hard patches of concrete-like material can develop inches or feet below the desert floor. 

Haboob in Texas

Haboobs are huge dust storms with fast moving clouds of dust that can be thousands of feet tall and many miles across. Click to enlarge image.

This material, called caliche or hardpan, is created when minerals like carbon dioxide and water interact and accumulate over time after drying out.

What is a Haboob?

Water isn’t the only driving force that moves dust or creates barriers in the desert. Huge dust storms, called haboobs, can grow to thousands of feet tall, moving soil and minerals miles across the desert. Over enough time, haboobs can even move enough dirt to create sand dunes in some areas.

Additional images via Wikimedia Commons. Sand dunes by user Brocken Inaglory. Racetrack Playa image by Jason Hickey.

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Anatomy of the Desert
  • Author(s): Karla Moeller
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: July 24, 2013
  • Date accessed: February 17, 2024
  • Link:

APA Style

Karla Moeller. (2013, July 24). Anatomy of the Desert. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved February 17, 2024 from

American Psychological Association. For more info, see

Chicago Manual of Style

Karla Moeller. "Anatomy of the Desert". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 24 July, 2013.

MLA 2017 Style

Karla Moeller. "Anatomy of the Desert". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 24 Jul 2013. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 17 Feb 2024.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see
Racetrack playa
Wind and water are important forces that shape desert lands. On the Racetrack Playa of Death Valley, winter weather freezes water in the ground and wind pushes at rocks, making them slide slowly along, leaving tracks.

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