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Cold Deserts

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Map Legend & Subregion List

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NameColor on MapCEC Code‡
Columbia Plateau10.1.2
Snake River Plain10.1.8
Central Basin and Range10.1.5
Wyoming Basin10.1.4
Colorado Plateaus10.1.6
Arizona/New Mexico Plateau10.1.7
Northern Basin and Range10.1.3
Thompson-Okanagan Plateau10.1.1

† Status: ✓ = Complete ○ = Needs Image … = Incomplete ∅ = Stub Only

This code refers to the CEC's Level 3 ecoregion codes for North America, see here.


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About the Cold Deserts

The Cold Deserts are a level II ecoregion, a collection of deserts in western North America characterized by colder temperatures. They include both more northerly desert regions, north into British Colombia, and some more southerly ones at higher altitudes, south into the plateaus of Arizona and New Mexico. Most of Nevada and Utah are located in this region, as well as a large portion of Wyoming, eastern Oregon and Washington, southern Idaho, and the westernmost portion of Colorado. The largest contiguous stretch of cold desert is located in Nevada.

These deserts exist largely because of rain shadow produced by mountain ranges; coastal ranges extract moisture from weather systems moving east from the Pacific ocean through the mechanism of orographic lift. When the air reaches lower-altitude regions again, little moisture is left, and deserts result. These regions are also separated by mountains from moister regions to the east, although these ranges play less of a role due to the west-east motion of most weather systems. Mountains do however also shield this region from the effect of the North American monsoon, preventing most moisture from reaching these interior areas.

The topography of these regions consist of plains or tablelands, often separated by mountain ranges. Rainfall is low, up to 10 inches (25 cm) and sometimes much lower. Soils are dry and mostly alkaline due to retaining a high calcium content. Temperature swings between day and night can be extreme, and freezing temperatures are common in winter.

These regions are largely surrounded by other mountainous ecoregions: in the north, the Western Cordillera, and at the southernmost part of this region, the Upper Gila Mountains. These transitions are abrupt and happen with changes in altitude. In the southwest of this region (Nevada, eastern California, and northwest Arizona), where this region is not bordered by mountains, it transitions gradually into the Warm Deserts. In Wyoming, to the northeast, it gradually transitions to the West-Central Semi-Arid Prairies.