Badlands 200 million miles apart: one in New Mexico and the other on Mars

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Heavily eroded petrified dunes in the Bisti wilderness show cross bedding. Almost identical features have been found in Gale Crater on Mars.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

These mudstone and sandstone hills in the Bisti wilderness exhibit layers colored by various minerals deposited in an ancient inland sea.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

A maze of weirdly-shaped hoodoos were created by the erosion of rock layers with varying resistance to the actions of wind, running water, and frost.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Cirrus clouds made of ice crystals waft high in the atmosphere above the Bisti wilderness. Similar clouds have been photographed on Mars by the Curiosity rover.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Rounded hills in Gale Crater on Mars are made of sediments similar to those in the bedrock of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin wilderness.

The Bisti/De-Na-Zin wilderness in the northwest corner of New Mexico is hot and dry for much of the year — when it is not bitter cold and dry — and it is far from the regions that are well-known to tourists such as those surrounding the cities of Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Taos.

Even some of the draws for the more adventurous visitor — the “Sky City” Pueblo called Acoma, the stunning ancient Anasazi ruins of Chaco Canyon, and artist Georgia O’Keefe’s beloved Ghost Ranch — are far better known and more accessible than the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Badlands.  Perhaps due to a recent article with photographs in “New Mexico” magazine, the public has become more widely aware of the preserve but the location’s remoteness virtually guarantees that even on weekends hikers are likely to find few others venturing into the barren wilderness.

The term “badlands” was coined by non-geologists but has been appropriated by geologists to describe an area featuring an exceedingly arid climate and relatively soft bedrock that has eroded into hills and sometimes weird sculptured shapes called “hoodoos.” Practically nothing can grow in badlands and even creatures such as insects, lizards, and snakes may be rare.

The Badlands of South Dakota became a national park because of the particularly colorful strata — layers — found there but large stretches of the United States Southwest and many other places scattered across Earth’s surface are badlands in fact if not always in name.

Geologists have always had great interest in badlands because in such barren landscapes — unlike in the well-watered, forest-and-field-covered stretches of the Northeast — the underlying bedrock lies open to easy viewing, and, where wind, ice, and water have worked on the bedrock, researchers can see deeply into the strata to find hidden clues to ancient environments.

The Bisti/De-Na-Zin badlands lie southeast of Farmington, New Mexico. The words are Navajo;  “Bisti” translates to something like “large area of shale hills,” which perfectly describes it. “De Na Zin” references falcons, seen occasionally in the wilderness area.

Its soft bedrock is mainly shale and mudstone interspersed with volcanic dust dating from the Cenozoic Era, the age of the dinosaurs. Its eroding hills and hoodoos have yielded numerous fossils of dinosaurs and other creatures that were their contemporaries as well as plants.

The strata that make up the bedrock contain varying amounts of minerals such as iron, carbon, magnesium, and quartz, which give them different colors: black, white, gray, purple, brown, and in some striking examples, bright rusty red. The strata were laid down in what in ancient times was a delta on the edge of the long-vanished Western Interior Seaway and the purple layers get their color from iron dissolved in the water.

While most of the brown strata are mudstone, the black strata are either shale containing decayed organic matter or soft coal; at some point in ancient times, the coal caught fire, possibly due to nearby volcanic activity. In any case, there is evidence that the fires burned underground for centuries, leaving behind a brilliantly red layer that erodes into piles of rust-colored sand and what appear to be crushed bricks.

An adventure

With some friends, I set off on a hike into the Bisti/De-Na-Zin badlands on a warm day in early June.  Hikers are advised to carry a device with GPS or a compass as the preserve does not have marked trails and landmarks can be deceiving, but we did observe a line of abandoned telephone poles that ran close to the primitive parking area.

Fortunately, given the gentleness of the topography, the poles were visible from great distances, providing us with easily visible reference points as the mazes of gullies and hoodoos of Bisti would not be good places in which to lose one’s way.

We set off over a series of low hills made of crumbling soft coal — a lifeless wasteland that looked like a landscape of Mordor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings — an uninviting beginning to a hike that gave no clue to what lay beyond.

Soon we climbed up out of the coal-bearing strata and found ourselves among the eroded fragments of ancient sand dunes, showing characteristic structures called “cross-bedding,” evidence of deposits caused by shifting water currents. In such locations, paleontologists sometimes find the footprints of late-Mesozoic dinosaurs.

Our map showed a great cluster of hoodoos half a mile or so away and we set off in a southerly direction. Soon we came upon a series of garishly-striped hills into which were eroded steep, narrow gullies — miniature slot canyons formed by the region’s occasional but torrential floods. On higher ground now, we could look across a wide, broad valley into which the sediments eroded off the Bisti hills have been settling for millions of years.

There were domes and small mesas, wide arroyos and narrow gullies, towering hoodoos, balancing rocks, and small erosive features resembling tables, turtles, barstools, and weirdly organic-looking forms suggestive of creatures out of some scary fairytale.

We climbed to a vantage point, a low flat-topped hill from which we could look down into a bewildering maze in which many of these sculpted features were clustered together. Nearby, and scattered randomly, projecting from the baked ground beneath our feet were fossilized stumps of Mesozoic-age trees that might once have offered shade to a dinosaur.

Though the air temperature was only in the low 80s, the sun overhead shone out of a sky swept with high, feathery cirrus clouds; the air was clear but for the thin haze caused by one of the Southwest’s forest fires that have been frequent this year. Though the scene before us was not without a stark beauty, it also seemed absolutely barren of life — and yet, from time to time a dusty-colored lizard would scamper across our paths and there were a few parched-looking cactuses and other desert plants.

The Bisti wilderness is also home to a number of golden eagles, hawks, and falcons but the occasional birds we could see soaring on updrafts above the baking ground were too far away for identification. In Jeff Goldblum’s iconic phrase from Jurassic Park — “Life will find a way.”

Like Mars

Some photographs sent back recently by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s “Curiosity” rover, which is currently climbing through the terrain of Gale Crater near the equator of Mars have demonstrated that the Red Planet, too, has its badlands.

The first blurry photographs of Mars returned by the Mariner 4 spacecraft in 1965 appeared to show what Carl Sagan called “a dull, uninteresting landscape” — all sand dunes and flat deserts like “Tatooine” in the “Star Wars” films, but subsequent probes showed that by very bad luck Mariner had missed vast stretches of Mars with complex, fascinating landscapes, including a spectacular canyon seven times deeper and 10 times longer than our own Grand Canyon.

In addition, photos of dried stream beds and river channels hundreds of miles long proved that the planet once had enormous amounts of flowing water — an absolute necessity for life as we know it.

Gale Crater was created eons ago when an asteroid crashed into the surface and the subsequent rebound of the bedrock thrust up an enormous peak called Mount Sharpe. The Curiosity rover began exploring the crater in 2011 and early on in its mission it sent back a photograph of the upthrust bedrock that shows a startling resemblance to some of the layered, eroded hills of the Bisti badlands.

The hills in Gale Crater have been found to be made of bedrock resembling shales and sandstones, interspersed with layers of volcanic dust — very similar to those in the Bisti wilderness and providing clues to the ancient environment of Mars. Cruising around the floor of the ancient crater, Curiosity has also analyzed numbers of heavily eroded hoodoos composed of cross-bedded sandstone.

These are evidence that the great crater was once filled with salty water with shifting currents that deposited the sand that was later turned to stone. Elsewhere the rover has photographed channels filled with rounded pebbles, the beds of ancient streams that flowed across the surface.

Today the Martian atmosphere is far too thin and cold to allow liquid water to remain on the surface for long without evaporating or freezing. But just as the hills of badlands such as Bisti/De-Na-Zin give scientists clues to the ancient environments of Earth, the eerily similar hills of Gale Crater give insight into the ancient past of Mars, and what they show is far different from what was inferred in the 1960s from those first, blurry images of the Martian surface.

The planet’s landscape is anything but “dull and uninteresting” and evidence shows that in the distant past, Mars was a warmer, wetter world with a thick atmosphere, and featured extensive bodies of salty water as well as rivers. In such a world life could have flourished.

But the surface today is devoid of anything living, subjected endlessly to ultraviolet radiation from the sun because of Mars’s thin atmosphere, and not a blade of desert grass nor dusty, stunted shrub is visible in the blasted landscape.

Eerily, the thin clouds that appear in Curiosity’s photographs are almost identical to those above the Bisti/De-Na-Zin wilderness: wispy feathery cirrus clouds formed from crystals of water ice high in the Martian atmosphere.

But, unlike the milky blue sky above New Mexico, the sky on Mars is a dusty yellow from tiny dust particles suspended in the atmosphere high above the surface by the planet’s winds. Sampling that atmosphere, Curiosity not long ago made a tantalizing detection: The cyclical presence in the atmosphere of quantities of methane.

The colorless, odorless gas is easily destroyed by ultraviolet light, and the atmosphere of Mars today is far too thin to prevent its destruction, meaning that the gas must constantly be replaced. While methane can be emitted during volcanic activity, the giant shield volcanoes on Mars appear to have been inactive for millions of years.

But methane is also a common waste product of biologic activity. Curiosity has found that in the relatively warmer months in Gale Crater the amount of methane increases and then levels off and falls as the climate gets colder. The possibility that this could be indicative of the activity of sub-surface primitive organisms has thus arisen.

Though relatively benign by comparison, the harsh climate of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin wilderness supports the existence of a few hardy forms of plants and animals, while the environment of Mars today is hostile in the extreme to living things. The thin air contains almost no oxygen and the dry, bitterly cold, barren landscape is constantly blasted by lethal radiation from the sun.

But the fact that Mars in distant ages was apparently much friendlier to life — if life ever arose there — gives hope that a few hardy organisms might have found refuge in a warmer, wetter, protected environment underground. Life, after all, is well known for “finding a way.”