White dunes roll away into the distance like giant snow drifts; then lightning flashes, illuminating the silvery peaks, so that momentarily they seem to glow. However, despite appearances, snow here is unlikely. This is the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, and what we see are granules of gypsum piled up in waves across the landscape. White Sands is, in fact, part of the biggest gypsum dune field on the planet. It’s an incredible sight at any time but is made doubly stunning during a lightning storm.
As the sky lights up with impressive displays of electrostatic discharge, the contrast between the bright white desert below and the dark storm clouds above is even more breathtaking. In this photograph, the color of the sun through the clouds adds yet another beautiful dimension to the scene. Photographer Thomas Mauer captured this stormy image in August during the summer monsoon.
In this awesome photograph, a bolt of lightning shoots down to earth from a high cloud, branching off as it goes. Hazy mountains are visible behind the bolt, while the white of the clouds is mirrored in the color of the sand. Incredibly, there are plants that grow in this seemingly inhospitable environment; they can be seen here dotting the white dunes.
Several branches of lightning have hit the ground here, creating a spectacular natural light show for the people who have parked nearby. Gypsum does not usually manifest as sand because it dissolves in rainwater; it is the unique geography of the region that makes this amazing desert possible.
In this image, lightning strikes in the distance as a huge thunderstorm rolls by the relatively flat-looking stretch of white sand. The reason this gypsum desert exists is because the Tularosa Basin in which it is located creates an enveloped environment. As there is no route to the ocean here, water with gypsum dissolved in it starts to pool. Over time, the water evaporates such that the gypsum crystals remain behind. Slowly, these crystals are broken down and then carried by the wind to form dunes. Interestingly, gypsum reflects the rays of the sun, so that even on a scorching day it doesn’t feel hot. In fact, visitors can actually run barefoot across the dunes.
The ripples in the sand here give it a watery quality, almost as if it were a giant lake of milk. As much as 50 percent of New Mexico’s yearly rainfall comes during its monsoon season, which runs from late June to September. The storms that hit the region during this time are usually brief but intense, and they can be very localized. The precipitation that falls during the monsoon is vital for plants, grass and crops and keeps down the otherwise high temperatures of summer.
Here, a single lightning bolt snakes its way down to earth, like a crack in the dark veil of rain. Plants like those seen here need to be hardy. Temperatures soar to 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and can dip well below zero in the winter. Then there are also the strong desert winds with which to contend.
In this shot, the trails of car headlights are almost as bright as the lightning and stand out vividly against the sand. At White Sands National Monument, lightning can occur even without rainfall. Anyone caught in the desert with a lightning storm impending is advised to seek cover. And if no car or building is accessible, the best course of action is to squat low to the ground between sand dunes.
One of the wonderful things about lightning photographs, such as this one, is that they allow us to see details we would probably overlook in the split second we are normally given to observe a strike. For example, the smaller branches reaching down around the main bolt are clearly visible in this image. While the clouds in the right of the photo are lit yellow by the urban environment beneath them, the left-hand side is illuminated bright white by the lightning.
Lightning can be beautiful at any time, but it seems extra stunning in this white desert environment. The monsoon season is an exceptionally spectacular period in which to visit New Mexico. Apart from the lightning, there are atmospheric black thunderclouds and colorful skies to experience. And as you can see from this article, it is an especially good time for photographers to shoot some amazing pictures.
A streak of lightning stands out in this rather ominous-looking dark scene of thick clouds and desert. Of course, if the sands weren’t white, the image would probably be a lot darker. When a group of U.S. Army officers first explored the desert in 1849, this area of New Mexico was already inhabited by the Mescalero Apache. However, the Apache generally avoided attempting to travel across the white desert unless they were forced to do so.
The White Sands National Monument was instituted in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover. Before this, it was envisaged by some that the area be used for hunting; however, this scheme was rejected, in line with the view that it be kept instead for preservation. In 2008 White Sands was listed as a possible World Heritage Site, but the application was not successful amid controversy relating to nearby military installations.
The large white sand dune in the foreground makes it look as if this photograph was taken on another planet. This effect is emphasized by the forked lightning and a violet-colored sky. It’s no wonder that as many as 600,000 people visit the White Sands National Monument annually.