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Great Basin Desert

Great Basin Desert valley
Sagebrush on the Great Basin Desert valley floor with the Sierra Nevada Mountains beyond.

The Great Basin Desert is the largest desert in North America. It covers an area of 200,000 square miles (518,000 square km). It lies mainly in the states of Nevada and Utah but also stretches into California and Idaho.

The Great Basin Desert is a temperate, cold, northern desert. It has hot, dry summers and snowy winters. The desert includes low salty dry lakes, up through rolling sagebrush valley to pinyon and juniper tree forests. The Great Basin Desert sits at elevations that range from 3,900 to 9,800 feet (1,200 to 3,000 m) above sea level. There are 33 peaks within the desert with summits higher than 9,800 feet (3,000 m).

The Great Basin Desert is enclosed by the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west and the Rocky Mountain range to the east. These mountains block much rainfall. The Great Basin Desert lies in what is known as a “rain shadow.” A rain shadow is land that has been forced to become a desert because mountain ranges block rainfall. The average rainfall in the Great Basin Desert is 12 inches (30 cm) and that usually comes as snow. A single “wet year” in the Great Basin Desert can be followed by many years of drought.

A dry lake in the Great Basin Desert. Winter snow creates lakes called “playas”; the lakes evaporate in summer.

The surface of the Great Basin Desert consists of broad valleys on a plateau and remnants of ancient lakes. The only water available to plants on the Great Basin Desert is melting snow that seeps into the fine-textured desert soils. Occasional storms create temporary lakes (called playas); these lakes evaporate in summer creating salt flats such as the Bonneville Salt Flats. The salt comes from sodium and calcium in the soil.

Only plants that need little water grow in the Great Basin Desert. Plants that grow on the Great Basin Desert are sagebrush, blackbrush, a few cacti, and pinyon and bristlecone pine, which is one of the longest living plants on Earth (up to 4,900 years). The dominant plant life near the Great Basin playas is a plant called saltbush. The climate of the Great Basin desert greatly impacts what can live and grow there; the climate is characterized by extremes: hot, dry summers and cold, snowy winters. The weather on day one day in the Great Basin Desert can include frigid alpine ridges and warm, windy valleys; days over 90 °F (32 °C) followed by nights near 40 °F (4 °C). That is the climate of the high desert

Animals that live on the Great Basin Desert include jackrabbits, Great Basin rattlesnakes, and the desert horned lizard. One toad that can survive droughts in the Great Basin Desert is Couch’s Spadefoot Toad; it survives by lying dormant underground during droughts encased with a watertight cocoon made of shed skin. Other animals living in the Great Basin Desert are yellow-bellied marmots, beavers, sagebrush voles, porcupines, bighorn sheep, and pygmy rabbits. 

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