This past March I went on a great geology field trip across northern Arizona, eastern California, and southern Nevada and Utah. The biggest stop on the trip involved two days in Death Valley National Park. This park is huge, and although it’s the hottest, driest, most inhospitable place in North America, there is a ton of cool stuff to see. Here I’m focusing on why it’s so hot and dry, and how that’s precisely why you shouldn’t feed the wildlife here (or anywhere, but especially here).
First, why is this the driest place in North America? High mountains create a rain shadow effect. In North America prevailing winds carry clouds eastward. As the clouds move up over mountains, they tend to release most of their moisture on the windward side. Once the clouds pass over the mountains, they tend to have low moisture. In mountainous regions, this rain shadow effect multiplies as clouds travel over each range. The Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Panamint Range west of Death Valley completely dry out the approaching air in this manner.
What little precipitation occurs collects in the lowest spots on the valley floor. The largest such location is Badwater Basin, shown above. That is indeed water you see, but it’s not fit to drink. It’s extraordinarily salty…hence the name “Badwater”. The bottom of the valley is a 200-square mile salt flat. The enclosed basin collects mineral-rich water that runs off the mountains. After the water evaporates, it leaves behind these minerals. Over a great deal of time, they collect into vast deposits.
Next, why is this the hottest place in North America? Death Valley is the lowest basin in North America’s basin and range province. Here the crust is slowly being pulled apart by extensional forces. The crust cracks and forms faults, and some blocks drop along these faults relative to the surrounding blocks. The dropped blocks form valleys (basin) and the higher blocks form mountains (range). This alternating basin-range sequence continues for hundreds of miles.
Badwater Basin is about 280 feet below sea level. The large amount of sunshine, high atmospheric pressure, low humidity, and the enclosed nature of the basin help create and trap heat. It got above 80 degree Fahrenheit in March, and in the summer it gets around 130 degrees in the daytime.
Despite the hostile landscape, a number of organisms make a living here. Among them are coyotes (Canis latrans, Canidae) that manage to find enough food, water, and shelter to survive. What doesn’t help them survive, however, is when ignorant people feed them.
While this may seem like a nice thing to do (it certainly feeds the animal in the short term), in the long term it actually hurts the animal. First, animals learn to beg for food from cars, bringing them close to roads where they can get hit. Second, animals can start pestering humans living and camping in the area, becoming a nuisance and a possible danger that can warrant their extermination. Third, animals can learn to rely on people for food instead of hunting.
When there are a lot of generous tourists around, things are great for the animals. Tourism plummets in Death Valley in the summer, however, when few people brave the scorching heat. Animals that have learned to rely on people for food can suddenly find themselves starving. This can negatively impact their health and survival, or it can lead them to invade human settlements in search of food. Once they start harassing and threatening people, they can find themselves on the wrong end of a rifle. While this is a problem everywhere, it’s especially alarming in Death Valley.
So a note to people like the guy above: Do the animals a favor and don’t feed them. They lived here for a long time without your help, and your “help” now may very well kill them.