City Cast

Desert 'Crust' — Incredibly Fragile, Utterly Vital

Scott Dickensheets
Scott Dickensheets
Posted on August 15
Photo of desert floor

Desert crust in the Nevada outback. (Federica Grassi/Getty)

“I hate Nevada. I know that just beneath the scrubby face of this desert beats a complex ecology no less beautiful in its way than the cool green business that goes on in the tide pools of the Pacific, but I don’t care.” — Craig Vetter, “Striking It Rich”

That's the desert for you — easy to acknowledge, difficult (for many) to care about. But the novelist quoted above is not wrong about the “complex ecology” that goes largely unseen. A big example of that is what’s called the “desert crust.” A more science-ish name is “cryptogamic crust”; a more poetic one is “desert glue.”

It might look like ordinary crispy dirt, scorched dark by exposure — but still just dirt. Not so. It’s a complex web of microorganisms: lichens, mosses, fungi, cyanobacteria. And while it might lack the aquatic allure of a Pacific tide pool, it’s nonetheless vital: The crust stabilizes the desert floor against erosion, helps plants retain water, and, crucially, pulls nitrogen from the atmosphere for the benefit of desert plants.

“The desert would not be able to support plant and animal life without these crucial ecosystem services!” the Southern Nevada Conservancy says on its website.

For all that, the desert crust is remarkably fragile, and damage — whether by your errant footfall or construction of a solar-power installation — takes years, even decades to recover from.

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