After the rain we’ve seen across Qatar last week, it wouldn’t surprise me if we saw some plants flowering in the desert. It always amazes me how little rain is needed for desert plants to be able to flourish. It seems surprising that anything can grow in such a dry environment, but it’s not just one type of plant. The variety of plants is really quite impressive.
It turns out that almost all deserts have seeds mixed into their sandy sand, but for the majority of the time they lie dormant, unable to grow in the harsh conditions. After rain, however, the seeds can be woken to bring a sudden burst of colour to the desert floor. Sometimes there will just be green shoots on display, but at other times there can be a stunning carpet of vivid flowers.
Just one downpour, however, usually isn’t enough to bring most colourful floral displays to the desert. After the initial soaking, more rain is needed over the coming weeks. Too little rain and the budding plants will shrivel and die, but too much and the seeds will rot or wash away. The temperature also plays a crucial role. If the temperature drops too low or too high, the seedling won’t survive, and equally if the winds are too dry and too strong, the plants will wilt and fade.
Of course Qatar isn’t the only place where deserts can be seen to bloom. At end of October last year, Chile’s Atacama Desert took on a vivid hue, as tiny pink flowers unfurled across the landscape. The Atacama is one of the driest places on earth, with some locations expecting less than 1mm (0.04 inches) of rain in a year. Last year, however, the landscape saw the heaviest rains in two decades. This rainfall was a lot for the Atacama, but still below that which would rot the seedlings, and the result was one of the most spectacular displays ever seen.
Currently there is also a riot of colour at Death Valley National Park in the US state of California. Having been to Death Valley, I can confirm that it is a very hot, dry place. I was driven through the National Park many years ago when I was a child. It was August, and the car wasn’t powerful enough to use the air conditioning whilst travelling uphill (remember this was a long time ago, cars have improved since!). I will never forget that heat, nor the excessive number of hills.
The highest temperature ever recorded on Earth was measured in Death Valley on July 10, 1913: an eye watering 56.7C (134F). Over one hundred years have passed since this temperature was reported, but the record still holds. No matter how hot it has felt in Qatar over the years, it has never matched this extreme heat.
Of course in winter the temperature in Death Valley is nowhere near this hot, but I still find it impressive that a seed can still grow after being subjected to such a ridiculously high temperature. All the seeds need is enough water and mild weather, and the shoots can be seen. Currently the floor of the national park is awash with bright yellow, pink, and purple blooms.
The fact that the Atacama Desert and Death Valley National Park both gave spectacular displays of colour within six months of each other is no coincidence.
Both the desert bloom in Chile and the United States were triggered by the same thing: El Nino. El Nino is the name given to the slight warming of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a natural phenomenon which happens every two to seven years, and it usually has a dramatic effect on the weather around the globe. Indonesia often experiences a drought, the Indian monsoon is expected to be weaker than usual and there are often more intense Tropical Cyclones than usual in the Pacific.
The current El Nino is one of the strongest ever recorded, and is having many of the effects on the weather that would be expected. As well as the impacts mentioned above, El Nino also tends to increase the rain over Peru and California. It’s this enhancement of the rain over the deserts in North and South America which has provided the moisture needed for the spectacular displays of colour.
The last time that there was such a botanic bonanza in either desert was over a decade ago, during the winter of 1997-1998. It’s no coincidence that this was also the last time that there were such strong El Nino conditions.
Unfortunately the floral blankets do not last too long. The flowers in Chile’s desert lasted a matter of weeks, and those in California are already beginning to dry up, even though they have only just bloomed. Spring is upon us and the sandy landscapes are heating up. Despite the fact that it is only mid-March, even the desert dwelling plants are beginning to feel the heat.
AFTER THE RAIN: One downpour usually isn’t enough to bring most colourful floral displays to the desert. After the initial soaking, more rain is needed over the coming weeks. Photo by Najeer Feroke