Mongolia Monday- Comparing The Gobi And The Sonoran Desert

Just for a little context….Prairie Creek State Park, Humboldt County, California

I grew up in forests. Redwood forests, to be exact. Camping out meant drippy, foggy mornings and warm sweatshirts with, maybe, sunshine in the afternoon. In August. None of it ever bothered me because I loved being enclosed by those wonderful trees. My mom always loved the desert. Me? Not so much.

Then I went to Mongolia and on my second trip in 2006 spent a few days in the Gobi. And found it quite interesting. Enough to want to go back.

Which I did in July of 2010. And got hooked. Totally. It was hot, sometimes humid, we had to be careful to make sure we had enough water, we fought off mosquitos with dung smoke at a remote lake and I can hardly wait to go there again. I love the Gobi.

Gobi earth road, through sand and saxaul forest near Orog Nuur (remote lake)

So when Dr. David Wagner invited me as one of 30 artists to spend a week traveling to, learning about, sketching, painting and photographing the Sonoran Desert and then creating work for a 2013 show at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona, I accepted immediately, thinking it would be interesting to compare and contrast these two arid environments.

“Earth road” going towards Nacapuli Canyon, Sonoran Desert

I’ve pulled together my research and travel experiences and here’s what I’ve learned, illustrated with images from both places.


SONORAN DESERT: Located in both the United States and Mexico

THE GOBI: Located in both Mongolia and China

Which means that both deserts cross an international boundary.

Tetakawi Hill: Mountain and sea, Sonoran Desert
Mountains and lake: Orog Nuur with Ikh Bogd mountains; demoiselle cranes at lakeside


SONORAN DESERT: 100,000 sq. miles

THE GOBI: 500,000 sq. miles, which makes it the 5th largest desert in the world

Nacapuli Canyon, Sonoran Desert
Yolyn Am (Vulture Gorge), Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, Sept. 2006


SONORAN DESERT: sea level to 12,600ft (San Francisco Peaks, Arizona)

THE GOBI: 3,000-5,000 ft. above sea level on a plateau; the highest mountain peak reaches almost 13,000 ft. (Gobi Altai mountains)

Sonoran Desert landscape with chollo and saguaro cactus, Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum grounds
Gobi landscape, saxaul trees with Flaming Cliffs in the background


SONORAN DESERT: Hot with some colder winter areas at higher elevation. Snowfall rare except in mountains. Temperatures: summer- up to 120F (180F surface temperature has been recorded in Lower Colorado River Valley); winter- average low of 39F. Rainfall: bi-seasonal rain pattern- Dec./Mar., July/mid. Sept.; in some areas, multiple years without rain. Wind: winds blowing onshore bring the summer “monsoon” rains; hurricanes possible.

THE GOBI: “Cold” desert due to location on a plateau. Frost and snow can occur on the dunes. Temperatures: summer- up to 140F; winter- down to -40F; up to 50F temperature swings in 24 hours. Rainfall: one rainy season-July/August; up to 7.6″, some years with no rain. Wind: winds up to 85mph can create dust storms (usually occurring in March/April) large enough to be seen from space.

Estero Solado, a tidal estuary with no inflow, therefore it is always saline
The Flaming Cliffs beyond small Gobi lake, Sept. 2006


SONORAN DESERT: Coastal areas on the Baja Pennisula and the east coast of mainland Mexico experience marine influence.

THE GOBI: Mongolia is a land-locked country, so the Gobi has no marine influence.

Side-blotched lizard, Nacapuli Canyon, Sonoran Desert
Toad-headed agama lizard, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Sept. 2008


SONORAN DESERT: There are seven ecoregions: Tundra, Coniferous Forest, Temperate Coniferous Forest, Grassland, Chaparrel, Desert, Thornscrub (wet desert), Tropical Forest (source: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum); sand dune fields of various sizes common.

THE GOBI: There are two or five ecoregions, depending on the source: 1) Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe, Gobi Lakes Valley Desert Steppe (World Wildlife Fund) 2) Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe, Alashan Plateau Semi-desert, Gobi Lakes Valley Desert Steppe, Junngar Basin Semi-desert, Tien Shan Range (“Alternative sources” Wikipedia entry for Gobi Desert); 5% of the Gobi is covered in sand dunes, much of the remainder in gravels of various kinds.

Avocets in the Estero Solado, Sonoran Desert
Avocets, Orog Nuur, The Gobi, July 2009


Animal herding is common in both places. In the Sonoran Desert, there are cattle and some horses. The cattle graze on their own, the horses get fodder. In the Gobi, there are domestic bactrian camels, goats and some horses. In the more arid areas, camels do the work of horses. All animals graze on their own unless there is a severe winter, then they are fed fodder.

Food growing occurs where there is enough water. In the Sonoran Desert, water comes from springs, groundwater and wells. The growing season is very short- July and maybe into August. In the Gobi, there are lakes in some areas, springs and wells. The growing season may be as long as from April to October, depending on rainfall.

Desert bighorn ram, Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, March 2010
Argali ram, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, April 2005


SONORAN DESERT: 60 mammal species, including desert bighorn, jaguar, Mexican grey wolf, kangaroo rats, saiga antelope; 350 bird species, 15 which are endemic;  over 100 reptile and 20 amphibian species. Endangered mammals: jaguar, Sonoran desert pronghorn. Endangered birds: cactus ferruginous pigmy owl, southwestern willow flycatcher

THE GOBI: 40 mammal species, including argali sheep, snow leopards (Altai Mountains) grey wolf, jerboas, Sonoran pronghorn antelope; the only reasonably reliable count for bird species that I could find on the web is 240 (from the Juuchin Tours website) specifically for Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. 15 reptile and amphibian species. Endangered mammals: Gobi bear, wild bactrian camel. Endangered birds: lammergeier, houbara bustard

Sonoran desert tree that stores water in its trunk
Saxaul tree, which has wood so dense from slow growth that a branch, thrown in the water, will sink


SONORAN DESERT: 2000 species of plants; known for: saguaro cactus

THE GOBI: 410 species of plants; know for: saxaul trees

For my Mongol friends, a desert that meets the sea

So there you have it. What I found to be a useful and interesting comparison of two of the great deserts of the world.

I want to thank Dr. Wagner for inviting me along on this wonderful trip and all my fellow artist traveling companions. Did we have fun or what? You’re the best!

Mongolia Monday Goes To Mexico

If all goes according to plan, I’ll be on my way to Arizona on Wednesday. A few days of gallery visits in Tucson and Scottsdale and then I’ll be joining around two dozen fellow artists on Sunday morning for the nine hour (two hours at customs, they tell us) bus ride to San Carlos, a town of 4,000 which is just to the west of Guaymas on the Sea of Cortez.

We're going to be based in a condo complex right on the beach just west of Guaymas

We’ll spend five days learning about the Sonoran desert ecosystem, hiking, snorkling, going out in a 50′ boat and recording the wildlife and landscape in a variety of media. What is doesn’t look like I’ll have, as near as I can tell right now, is an internet connection, although I may be able to post some photos on Facebook via my iPhone.

The purpose of the trip is to gather the material needed for us to each create work for an exhibition “The Sea of Cortez”, to be held at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in 2013.

One of my personal goals will be to compare the desert ecosystem of this part of Mexico with the Gobi of Mongolia. The biggest difference, which is obvious from looking at maps of both places, is that much of the Sonoran desert has at least some marine influence, whereas the Gobi has none. What this will mean in terms of climate, vegetation and animal life will be interesting to learn.

The Gobi extends from Govi-Altai in the west to Dornogovi in the east, over a third of the land area of Mongolia.

So, if you don’t see a new post here for a week or so, you’ll know that I’m suffering for my art- hanging out with a bunch of great artists, sketching, painting, talking shop and eating great Mexican food.