Lightning Strikes Etch the Sky Over White Sands National Monument

Several branches of lightning have hit the ground here, creating a spectacular natural light show for the people who have parked nearby. Gypsum does not usually manifest as sand because it dissolves in rainwater; it is the unique geography of the region that makes this amazing desert possible.

In this image, lightning strikes in the distance as a huge thunderstorm rolls by the relatively flat-looking stretch of white sand. The reason this gypsum desert exists is because the Tularosa Basin in which it is located creates an enveloped environment. As there is no route to the ocean here, water with gypsum dissolved in it starts to pool. Over time, the water evaporates such that the gypsum crystals remain behind. Slowly, these crystals are broken down and then carried by the wind to form dunes. Interestingly, gypsum reflects the rays of the sun, so that even on a scorching day it doesn’t feel hot. In fact, visitors can actually run barefoot across the dunes.

The ripples in the sand here give it a watery quality, almost as if it were a giant lake of milk. As much as 50 percent of New Mexico’s yearly rainfall comes during its monsoon season, which runs from late June to September. The storms that hit the region during this time are usually brief but intense, and they can be very localized. The precipitation that falls during the monsoon is vital for plants, grass and crops and keeps down the otherwise high temperatures of summer.