topography, climate, and biogeography in California
Geographically, California may find itself among the few places in the world where climate types, five, to be precise, meet at such a close range from one another. Of course, this may very well happen because the state hosts such a wide variety of geographical features. It is home to such mountains as the Sierra Nevada, deserts like the Mojave, which has kept its name after the Mohave Native Americans, valleys among which the Central Valley is known for its fertile land and not least, islands. In fact, California’s islands are particularly interesting for explorers who are fascinated by how evolution followed its course within these isolated places. As everything is interrelated, the multiple differences of landforms have influenced climate along the millions of years during the formation and after. Naturally, how life evolved has also been a factor dependent of all these transformations of land and climate. In the following, we shall try to analyze how each of these factors have influenced each other and, where necessary, we will specifically point to the interrelation between them.
To start with, the five types of climate which are met in California state are the Desert, Cool Interior, Highland, Steppe climates and Mediterranean, all of which are, naturally, characterized by different shifts of temperature, different degrees of precipitation, and everything else that constitute climate. Let us say that the Mediterranean climate is characteristic of the Mediterranean sea and it is encountered in only a few other places worldwide, California being among them. It was the formation of plate tectonics that resulted into a complex geology of sea-floor sediments, metamorphic, and volcanic rocks which, eventually, being influenced by the cold current in California, helped into the adjustment of the Mediterranean climate for over millions of years now.
Among the “lays of the land” which are known to have the greatest impact on the overall environment are mountains because, such as Schoenherr (1995) has stated, “a mountain is a microcosm of many types of climate.” (p. 41) This is because, according to the range of mountains, changes occur in patters of temperature, circulation of wind and precipitation. and, as such, with higher elevations, temperatures decrease, causing a flow of precipitation and year-round snow. A mountain’s orientation influences precipitation in two ways, windward, meaning the side of the mountain that faces into the wind, and leeward, which is the opposite side of the mountain, that is, the side that is opposite to where the wind is blowing. This brings into focus the actions and the effects of yet another feature, the wind. In the Sierra Nevada, for example, the decrease of air temperature causes precipitation on the side of the mountain which faces the coast. From there, towards Owens Valley, the air is exposed to an increase of temperature which consequently determines the climate of the Great Basin Desert (Schoenherr, 1995, p. 41). According to how slopes catch more precipitation or heat from the sun, vegetation springs differently from area to area. Whereas some may be exposed to open air and grass covers most of the surface, others can shelter pine trees and such.
In the Cretaceous period, the Sierra Nevada was already of magnificent range. However, as the Central Valley began filling with sediments, the Sierra also started lifting itself some thousand meters high, a change that would also transform a lot of the surrounding environment. The uplift however has been unequal throughout the years, resulting into a developmental region of the eastern side much acclaimed nowadays and a somewhat marginalized western side, Schoenherr himself naming it, “in fact, the top of a large rock mass.” (Schoenherr, 1995, p. 1) the Sierra Nevada is the prominent feature of mountain range in the state of California. To this day, the streams that flow down its western slope keep on carving Sierra Nevada. For that matter, Sierra generally continues to be influenced by different environmental factors that demonstrate its youthfulness and constant growth (Schoenherr, 1995, p.1). The presence of canyons and their parallel directions actually shape the pattern of flowing waters, thus offering easier access to drainage and allowing areas to be supplied abundantly. In fact, California’s major water supply, so to speak, is the Sierra Nevada which profusely allows agriculture and industry to prosper regularly and constantly.
How land and water communicate with each other also affect climate. Considering this, let us bear in mind that oceans are more resistant to heat and cold than land. And California stretches along a coastline which is number three in length, after Alaska and Florida. California’s coast incorporates many sand beaches but, most of all and relevant to the shifts of temperature, rocky cliff formations. As a result, the Southern part of California is much warmer, due to its position being closer to large body of water. The Coast Ranges of California consist of rocks that initially represented sediments on the bottom of the sea. The mountain rose during the course of several periods and due to the exposure to warm seawater, its rocks have captured a green look known as serpentine. The changes in soil allowed for the existence of different species of trees. Oak trees represent certain areas with varieties from Blue Oak to Coast Live Oak, Interior Live Oak and Valley Oak. Other dominant tree species are pines which owe their survival to the fact that “heavy fog often cloaks the coastal slope.” (Schoenherr, 1995, p. 7)
The Mojave Desert is one of the three representative deserts for California. However, along the years, there have been many climate changes that allowed the region to look completely different from how it does today. There was considerable more vegetation and animal life in the past mostly because temperatures were not as high then, and the region less arid. The cooler temperatures allowed water not to evaporate and so life could sustain itself more easily. Nowadays, summers are very dry and hot but, during the winter, precipitation is not uncommon and temperatures drop lower to the point where it can actually snow. Thus, life here is typically adjusted to conform to both extremes. Joshua Trees are found on higher elevations of the Mojave Desert where climate allows for its growth, whereas warmer temperatures at lower heights sustain the Creosute Bush (Schoenherr, 1995, p. 8).
Responsible for such variations of climate is the Sierra Nevada which absorbs humidity from the Pacific Ocean but releases it before it can manage to reach the desert and because the Mojave Desert fluctuates in range, this being the reason it is often referred to as the “high desert” (Schoenherr, 1995, p. 7), elevations make precipitation possible within the Mojave Desert.
According to such climate, different tree species grow along areas and, due to their aggressiveness, vegetation is reduced, thus resulting into a disfunction of species. These are called tamarisk and are representative for the Virgin area of Mojave. Compared to other vegetation, they are more tolerant of fire and toxic elements. The fire frequency is thus higher because tamarisk support it and, once it happens, the toxin is released into soil, making this specific type of vegetation dangerous to the existence of other forms. However, the Mojavean region supports other less threatening vegetation that is only common to this part of the world. An unusual soil in the Mojave Desert has given birth to a series of endemic plant species that have been able to adapt to this gypsum formation. One of this plants is on California’s endangered species list and it is named bearpaw poppy.
The Mojave region makes it harder however for animal life to exist. Amphibians, for example, due to their requirement of water, something which Sierra Nevada can supply plenty, are among the rarest to be found within the region of the desert. But it does favour the existence of the tortoise which is, in fact, named the desert tortoise, because its adaptability to the environment. The Mojave Desert National Preserve has tried to include as much of these populations as possible because of their decrease in number. The local habitat is also home to the Mojave ground squirrel, Tehachapi pocket mouse, and Owens Valley vole, all rodents specific for the region. The fauna and flora in the Mojave Desert have changed much throughout the years also because of the interference with outside species. That is to say, when people started to move into the region, they brought along various new that influenced the development on the environment.
Between the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada lies the Great Central Valley, which is mainly situated near water. However, the region is known to be one of California’s most arid zones, with precipitation occurring mostly during winter, and rains being stalled back by the rain shadow from the Coast Ranges. In fact, in the southern part, it reaches such low levels that the valley may very well be considered a desert (Schoenherr, 1995, p. 16). The formation of the Great Central Valley has been possible through the accumulation of sediments from sea which, along the years, had been washed out of the mountains. These mountains surrounding the area have had an influence on much of the Great Valley’s climate.
Particular to the valley is grassland which, in fact, has earned a name for itself and an advocate in this sense. Great Valley Grasslands State Park thrives on preserving whatever grassland is left in the region of San Joaquin Valley. The Valley allows for the nourishment of such wild flower as lupines, California Poppies, and Purple Owl Clover. Mountain runoff created wetlands habitats throughout the years, leading to the formation of marshes. Although they are not common anymore, they supplied the right environment for such trees as the Black Willow, which is a water loving tree. Riparian Woodland is also to be found in the Great Valley, as it is common to the Mojave Desert, however, their existence within the regions of the latter has been burdened by the tamarisk.
Spreading across the coast of the Pacific, California is subjected to the influence of the ocean. Moreover, mountains have a definite role in the control of the weather. As we have seen, mountains have also favoured the apparition of both the deserts and the valleys in California. Temperatures, as “controlled” by the mountains, have also had a say in how life was able to take form and develop within their ranges. Plants and animals have learned to adapt to the changes of the climate and, as such, to a changing environment.
Schoenherr, a.A. (1995). A Natural History of California. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
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