Ocotillo plant in the Chihuahuan Desert
|Country||Mexico, United States|
|- elevation||3,700 m (12,139 ft)|
|- elevation||600 m (1,969 ft)|
|Length||1,285 km (798 mi)|
|Width||440 km (273 mi)|
|Area||362,600 km2 (140,001 sq mi)|
|Website: Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso|
The Chihuahuan Desert is a desert, and an ecoregion designation, that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border in the central and northern portions of the Mexican Plateau. It is bordered on the west by the extensive Sierra Madre Occidental range, along with overlaying northern portions of the Sierra Madre Oriental. On the U.S. side it occupies central and southern New Mexico, the portion of Texas west of the Pecos River, and southeastern Arizona; on the Mexican side, it covers the northern half of the state of Chihuahua, along with the majority of Coahuila, north-eastern Durango, the extreme northern part of Zacatecas, and small western portions of Nuevo León. With an area of about 362,000 km2 (139,769 sq mi), it is the third largest desert of the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in North America, after the Great Basin Desert.
Several larger mountain ranges include the Sierra Madre, the Sierra del Carmen, the Organ Mountains, the Franklin Mountains, the Sacramento Mountains, the Sandia-Manzano Mountains, the Magdalena-San Mateo Mountains, the Chisos Mountains, the Guadalupe Mountains, and the Davis Mountains. These create "sky islands" of cooler, wetter, climates within the desert, and such elevated areas have both coniferous and broadleaf woodlands, and even forests along drainages and favored exposures.
The Chihuahuan Desert is higher in elevation than the Sonoran Desert to the west, mostly varying from 600–1,675 m (1,969–5,495 ft) in altitude. As a result, it tends to have a slightly milder climate in the summer (though usually daytime June temperatures are in the range of 35 to 40 °C or 95 to 104 °F). Winter weather varies from relatively mild to quite cold depending on altitude and the ferocity of northerly winds. Precipitation is somewhat more abundant than most of the southern Great Basin, the Sonoran, and Mojave deserts, however it is still usually less than 254 millimeters (10.0 in) per year, with much of the rain falling during the "monsoon" of late summer. The mean annual precipitation for the Chihuahuan Desert is 235 mm (9.3 in) with a range of approximately 150–400 mm (6–16 in). Nearly two-thirds of the arid zone stations have annual totals between 225 and 275 mm (8.9 and 10.8 in). Snowfall is scant except at the higher elevation edges.
There are a few urban areas within the desert: the largest is Ciudad Juárez with almost two million inhabitants, neighboring El Paso; then the city of Chihuahua and Torreón. Las Cruces and Roswell in New Mexico are among the other significant cities in this ecoregion. Albuquerque, Saltillo and Monterrey are located near the Chihuahuan desert.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Chihuahuan Desert may be the most biologically diverse desert in the world, whether measured on species richness or endemism, although the region has been heavily degraded over time, mainly due to grazing. Many native species have been replaced with Creosote Bush. The Mexican Wolf, once abundant, has been extirpated.
Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) is the dominant plant species throughout the Chihuahuan Desert. The other species it is found with depends on factors such as the soil, altitude, and degree of slope. Creosote Bush, Viscid Acacia (Acacia neovernicosa), and Tarbush (Flourensia cernua) dominate the northern portion. Yucca and Opuntia species are abundant in the central third, while Arizona Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus polyacanthus) and Mexican Fire-barrel Cactus (Ferocactus pilosus) inhabit the southernmost portion.
Herbaceous plants, such as Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), Gypsum Grama (B. breviseta), and Hairy Grama (B. hirsuta), are dominant near the Sierra Madre Occidental. Lechuguilla (Agave lechuguilla), Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), Opuntia macrocentra and Echinocereus pectinatus are the dominant species in western Coahuila. Anacahuita (Cordia boissieri), Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), Lechuguilla, and Yucca filifera are the most common species in the southeastern part of the desert. Candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica), Mimosa zygophylla, Acacia glandulifera and Lechuguilla are found in areas with well-draining, shallow soils. The shrubs found near the Sierra Madre Oriental are exclusively Lechuguilla, Guapilla (Hechtia glomerata), Queen Victoria's Agave (Agave victoriae-reginae), Sotol (Dasylirion spp.), and Barreta (Helietta parvifolia), while the well-developed herbaceous layer includes grasses, legumes and cacti.
Grasslands comprise 20% of this desert and are often mosaics of shrubs and grasses. They include Purple Three-awn (Aristida purpurea), Black Grama (Bouteloua eriopoda), and Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). Early Spanish explorers reported encountering grasses that were "belly high to a horse;" most likely these were Big Alkali Sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii) and Tobosa (Pleuraphis mutica) bottomlands.
Lechuguilla (Agave lechuguilla)—one of the indicator plants of the Chihuahuan Desert
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Chihuahuan Desert.|
- Wright, John W. (ed.); Editors and reporters of The New York Times (2006). The New York Times Almanac (2007 ed.). New York, New York: Penguin Books. p. 456. ISBN 0-14-303820-6.
- Chihuahuan Climate, Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute
- "Chihuahuan desert". Terrestrial Ecoregions. World Wildlife Fund. Retrieved 2010-10-22.
- Chihuahuan Desert images at bioimages.vanderbilt.edu (slow modem version)
- Pronatura Noreste in the Chihuahuan Desert
- Small desert beetle found to engineer ecosystems EurekAlert! March 27, 2008