Desert hiking is one of the most brilliant experiences a hiker could have, with the splendid views and unique climate. However, desert hiking comes with great responsibility because of cryptobiotic soil.
This unique crusty exterior of desert terrains hark back thousands of years, but that’s not the only reason hikers need to be careful around it.
What is Cryptobiotic Soil?
Cryptobiotic soil is a kind of soil that’s found primarily and deserts and is essentially a kind of soil that has a hidden ecosystem underneath the crust. The root words “crypto,” which means secret or hidden, and “biota,” which means life, make that pretty clear.
What actually live in the soil are moss, fungi, lichen, and cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, is an ancient type of life form. It’s one of the key agents responsible for fertile soil across the world, as it turned carbon dioxide into oxygen, helping other life forms survive and evolve.
Why is Preserving it Important?
Cryptobiotic soil protects the top layer of the desert terrain from complete infertility by absorbing any water runoff into its spongy texture. This also lowers evaporation, making it possible for desert vegetation to grow sporadically.
However, as urban expansion and industrial growth have continued unrestrained in the US, large patches of desert soil that had rich cryptobiotic crusts have been flattened and destroyed. This means that water and wind erosion is more likely, and the complex crust that took up to (or more than) 5000 years to form is gone.
Identifying Cryptobiotic Soil
When hiking in the desert, it’s important to understand what cryptobiotic soil looks like. Younger cryptobiotic soil will look brown and mostly flat without any clear markers. However, the spongy texture can be a giveaway,
Mature cryptobiotic soil will be raised and uneven, with dark brown/almost black coloring on top. There will also be a clear presence of moss or lichen on top, which indicates a few thousand years of growth.
How to Protect It as You Hike
Any avid hiker eventually develops a love for nature and a commitment to protect it, which is why it’s important to recognize that cryptobiotic soil is just as important as endangered rainforests. The best way to protect this delicate soil is to stay away from it! The crust is extremely delicate, and even a heavy step can destroy it.
Stick to the trails, and don’t venture out in your car onto this delicate ecosystem that’s vital for the planet.
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