What’s The Deal With Desert Varnish?

A couple weeks ago, the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace pulled what’s quite possibly the stupidest stunt in their history by illegally traipsing out to one of the Nazca Lines and unfurling big cloth letters that read: “Time For Change. The Future Is Renewable. Greenpeace.” The footprints they left behind may last thousands of years.

Medium Versus Message

The reason the stunt was do darn stupid, of course, has nothing to do with the message itself. (Okay, the “Greenpeace” branding is actually pretty lame, but let’s not go there right now.) Lord knows it’s high time the people of Earth moved towards fuel sources that won’t stifle our species out of existence.

No, the reason the stunt was so darn stupid is that the activists somehow neglected to take into account the fact that the ground they were walking all over is an extremely fragile environment — one that even footsteps can do long-lasting damage to. In other words, they undid their message with the medium they chose, severely tarnishing the reputation of the environmental movement at large.

What was Greenpeace thinking? The organization may never live this one down.

Desert Varnish, It’s All Over The Southwest Too

You may be wondering why it is that the ground around the Nazca Lines is so fragile. The short answer is that it’s coated with a thin layer of what’s known as desert varnish.

While many in the U.S. may have never seen desert varnish before — owing to the fact that they don’t live in the desert — those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the American Southwest run into the stuff all the time, even though we may not know it by name. Basically, anytime you see dark streaks on sandstone cliff faces, you’re looking at it.

What Is It?

As with a great many phenomena in the universe, there is still much that scientists don’t know about desert varnish. What is known, however, is that varnish is a combination of clay particles, microorganisms, and manganese or iron.

A defining characteristic of varnish is its extremely slow growth, which is evinced by the longevity of things like petroglyphs — rock icons that can be found, for example, all over my home state of New Mexico. The Nazca Lines themselves were created by the large-scale removal varnish-covered rocks over 1,500 years ago.

Don’t Be Like Greenpeace

Unfortunately, we can’t undo the damage done to the Nazca Lines. But maybe we can learn something from the whole fiasco, so we don’t repeat Greenpeace’s mistakes as we’re wandering the deserts.

If you bump into desert varnish out there — and you will — remember to tread lightly. Don’t carve your name into it; don’t break off chunks of rock; don’t walk on fragile surfaces.

Learn More:

(Today’s photo comes from ThunderKiss Photography’s Flickr. Thanks for listing your work under a Creative Commons license!)

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