Thursday, February 23, 2012

Arizona: Land of Variety

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By Vladimir Olensky

Arizona is known for its intensely hot deserts and dry conditions. While this is an accurate description of the state for some of the year, it paints a picture in many people's minds similar to that of the great African deserts such as the Sahara or Kalahari. Vast expanses of sand, little to no vegetation, no rivers: this stereotypical desert is really only accurate near Yuma, Arizona. There, dunes of sand build up and move across the landscape and are like a beach with no water.

However, most of Arizona's desert is not sand dunes, but rocky, volcanic hardpan. In much of the state, ancient, eroded volcanic cores jut up from the desert floor. Furthermore, most of Arizona's desert is quite green. While eight to ten inches of rain per year is not much, it is far more than the fraction of an inch that African deserts typically receive. Accordingly, there is a surprisingly large amount of plant life. Saguaro cactus, which grows only in Arizona and northern Mexico, dot the landscape like a forest of widely-spaced, leafless trees.

While Arizona's desert is certainly quite hot and dry in the summer months, it does not cover the entire state. The southern third is desert, but the middle third is mountainous. Arizona is roughly bisected by the edge of the Colorado Plateau, known as the Mogollon Rim (pronounced "muggy-on"). This escarpment, running from the northwest corner to the eastern side of the state means that northern Arizona is several thousand feet higher than the southern deserts. Flagstaff sits at about 7000 feet, at the foot of a 12,000 foot mountain. Phoenix, only two hours away, is about 1500 feet.

This disparity in elevations means that Arizona experiences virtually all climates. Phoenix in summer reaches 100 degrees more than 100 days per year, and 115 is not uncommon. Contrast that with the high elevations just outside Flagstaff: there is often a patch of snow on the north side of Humphreys Peak in July.

Arizona RV parks around Phoenix tend to fill up in winter as people fleeing the cold of northern Arizona and other places seek a warm place to spend the holidays. Referred to by year-round locals as "snow birds" these, often retired, people compose a large percentage of the customer base for RV parks in Arizona. Because they are not obligated to a job, snow birds are able to follow the seasons, and live in constantly ideal weather. In Arizona's varied climate this is quite easy, since differences in temperatures of 40 degrees or more can be found only an hour or two apart.

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