Leave No Trace? The problem of sand dunes on the Black Rock Desert


The Black Rock Desert has had human visitors for millenia. The primary attraction of the Black Rock Desert was its extreme flatness. Since 2000, incidental dunes, (aka playa serpents) have appeared over much of the playa, which have adversely affected most uses of the playa. My position is that the dunes come from dust generated by Burning Man. In the 2006 Burning Man EA, the BLM used a 1970 photo of dunes to try to prove that dunes have been happening on the desert since before Burning Man. Formerly, I believed that the dunes generated photographed in 1970 were created by Michael Heizer's 1968 land art piece "Dissipate" and are not representative of the condition of the entire desert.  I used Google Earth to place the 1970 photo and "Dissipate" to within 900 meters (the location could be even closer due to scaling effects). I also present historical photos of the surface of the desert, up until 2000, only the 1970 photo shows the peculiar dune formation.

July, 2010 update: I contacted Dr James T. Neal, the author of the 1970 paper and he stated that the photo in the 1970 paper was taken in 1963 or 1964, four or five  years before Heizer's 1968 piece.  Thus, my theory about Heizer's work causing the dunes in Dr. Neal's photo is incorrect.  Nonetheless, the 1964 photo is the only photo I've been able to find that has the peculiar type of dunes that is from before 2000.

Book: Images of America: Black Rock Desert

Because of this website, Arcadia Publishing contacted me about doing a book about the desert.  My book, "Images of America: Black Rock Desert," was released on November 11, 2013.  Proceeds from the book benefit the Gerlach Seniors Center.  

Nick Walden wrote an article about me for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, "From Cotati to the Nevada Desert." (August 2, 2013) The article covers the dunes, the appeal and the book.

Permit Appeal

July, 2012 - I went ahead and appealed the permit.  On May 13, IBLA 2012-225 denied the permit.

Good Intentions

Burning Man promotes leave no trace:

"Burning Man is a Leave No Trace Event, and we seek not only to minimize our impact in the desert but also to understand our impact beyond its boundaries. The links to the right will guide you through preparing for your Burning Man experience, and will introduce some groups who are dedicated to addressing environmental issues in Black Rock City and beyond."

and they have an Environmental Statement that talks about using non-fossil fuels. However, despite the assertion that the organization seeks to "minimize our impact in the desert", the statement does not address the impact of the event on the local environment.

Burning Man, and all of us who love and foster the event, have a huge problem:

We are destroying the desert

The problem is that 53,963 (2011) attendees stir up a lot of dust, which gets blown around the desert and is changing the Black Rock Desert from one of the World's flattest places—suitable for the 1997 ThrustSSC land speed record—to a dune field.

Personal Observations with some citeable sources

I've been going to the Black Rock Desert since 1989. During the first few years, if the desert was dry, then it was flat and hard. Land sailing was easy, it was possible to bicycle with your eyes closed.

The first time I saw large incidental dunes was just after the 1997 ThrustSSC broke the sound barrier. These dunes were located near the 3 mile entrance, where the temporary buildings to support both land speed record efforts. The dunes were probably 6" high and maybe 12 feet long.

Burning Man is big on Leave No Trace, yet even today, scars from two of the late 90's burns near the 3 mile entrance persist in Google Maps? Why is that? Yahoo maps has these two scars as well.

In April, 2000, the BLM sent email (Bilbo2000) about the "playa serpents".

The source material for the dunes is most likely Burning Man (Young2000).

The dust storms at Burning Man have been getting worse over the years.

In addition, severe dust storms have been happening earlier and earlier during the week of Burning Man. In 2000, a severe dust storm occurred on Sunday, after the burn. In 2007, the worst dust storm was on Wednesday during Burning Man. In 2008, there was a severe dust storm on Monday. These storms occur when wind picks up sand disturbed by users of the playa. The storms have been occurring earlier because the desert has not had time to recover, and the number of people has increased.

The dust from Burning Man is affecting areas outside of the Burning Man site.

Land sailing has been strongly negatively impacted by the dunes. At first, they were fun. Now, there is very little clear area on which to sail. The land sailing event, which has been held annually for many years on the Black Rock desert was held on the Alvord Desert in 2002. Bassano2002

In October, 2006 and October 2007, I was camped downwind of the Burning Man site. The amount of dust blowing from the site was immense. Each year, there was a wall of dust blowing downwind, where at one location, the air would be fairly clear, yet walking 50 feet would put one inside a maelstrom of dust. In past years, Burning Man has dragged the desert with chains in an effort to smooth over the site. All this does is effectively plow up the desert and allow wind to move the dust and sand away from the site. This means that the site looks ok, but north and south of the site is a labyrinth of dunes.

Desert Pavement is a type of desert surface that consists of pebbles that are tightly packed together, possibly because the sand separating the pebbles has been removed. In the northeast arm of the Black Rock Desert, there is fresh sand being deposited on desert pavement. The sad thing is that because of the degree of desert varnish on the desert pavement, the desert pavement appears quite old, possibly hundreds or even thousands of years old.

The dunes have become worse and worse. At Burning Man 2008, a line of dunes ran East-West just south of the 3:00 road, corresponding with the 2007 trash fence. (Sarriugarte2008). The dunes were large enough that art cars had to detour. Bicycling was very difficult, cyclists were limited to traveling on the tire tracks of cars. In effect, Burning Man has already lost use of the desert: in 2008, bicyclists were required to follow roads.  Two dry years in 2010 and 2011 have made for a better surface, but the number of attendees has increased.  The 2007 trash fence dune was present in 2008 through 2011, presumably it was removed during the 2011 cleanup.  It is likely that the next dry year (2012?) will result in massive dust production that will not be washed away.

Laura Levy's "Burning Thoughts 2012" provides an good overview of the dunes and monitoring issues.

Timeline of Dunes on the Black Rock Desert

Below is a chronologically ordered list of references concerning the Black Rock Desert dunes. The first few references are photos of the desert that are interesting in that there are no dunes present.



"The Winning of Barbara Worth" is filmed on the Black Rock Desert.

Rough, no dunes

(Carlton E. Haviland)


David Loomis' book "Combat zoning: military land-use planning in Nevada" discusses the evolution of the Black Rock Desert Gunnery Range.  It appears that the range was in use in 1942, cancelled in 1943 and reinstated in 1944.  The range was an aerial gunnery range, "no bombs, rockets or explosives were to be used".  During the time the range was in operation, portions of the Black Rock Desert were closed to public use, which would have greatly reduced any dunes.

The faux-history web page Military and Postwar Occupation includes a more detailed timeline that was probably used to update the Black Rock Desert Wikipedia page.

Russell Elliot's book "The History of Nevada" has an undated picture of the Black Rock Desert on page 211 that looks to be from the 1940's.


In the 1950's, the Black Rock Desert was part of the Lovelock North Gunnery Range.  The "Lovelock North Gunnery Range Inventory Project Report" says:

1.This report of Findings and Determination of Eligibility has been prepared as requested for the Lovelock North Gunnery Range. Although the site consisted of 71 8,000 acres in 1945, this amount varied over time. Use of the 71 8,000 acres which originally comprised the range was granted to the DoD by a Department of the Interior letter dated January 13, 1945. There is no record of the DoD's use of the property from this time until the 1950s when a smaller range was consisting of 272,000 acres was acquired and the range was renamed Black Rock Desert Gunnery Range. This property was acquired by letter permit from the Department of the Interior in 1949.
2. While information regarding the specific use of the target area was not located, it is known that NAAS, Fallon under NAS, Alameda used the target During World War 11, when propellor type aircraft were used and gunnery training from Fallon was conducted over an area comprised of approximately 1,559,000 acres. This area, located in Pershing and Hurnboldt Counties, Nevada, was known as the Lovelock Aerial Gunnery Range and used by the Navy. As of 1955, NAAS Fallon was the gunnery satellite field for all'fleet squadrons based in the San Francisco area. In April 1959 the area was used for gunnery practice with 22 millimeter machine guns.
3. The Department of Interior permit for the north portion of the Lovelock Gunnery Range was canceled by a BuDocks letter dated March 6,1946. The letter lists the property as surplus. In a summary of presentations regarding the acquisition of either the Black Rock or Sahwave Ranges, it was noted that the Navy needed the Black Rock Range for 1 80 weekdays and the Sahwave Range for 143 days, and the length of time the area would be required should not extend beyond 1965 (SB0849). No other information regarding deactivation/disposal is available at this time.


UNR's photo "Seven wild horses running on the Black Rock Desert" was taken in the 1950's.  However, this might be Bluewing, Adobe, or Misfits Flat (near Dayton), not the Black Rock Desert.  Laura Levy suggests it might be the "western edge of the Kumiva Flat looking back at the SE corner of that playa toward Juniper Pass"

(Gus Bundy)


Nell Murbarger, Desert Magazine, "On Black Rock Desert Trails", July, 1951, p15-20:


Nell Murbarger, Desert Magazine, "Lost Hardin Silver, Mystery or Hoax?", April, 1955, p9-12 has a photo of the norther part of the Black Rock Desert, though the photo does not show the playa surface.


Desert Magazine, "Navy Land Grab in Nevada's Black Rock Country"

The faux-history web page Military and Postwar Occupation includes the photo below with the description "In 1942, the Army Air Corps established a temporary tent city in support of operations in the Black Rock Desert." However, the bottom of the page says "Images ... Occupation of BRC by military - 1956".  Mike Morgan used Tin Eye to find another version that is titiled "8-Ottoman Red Crescent 1915-1917 Beersheba".  Mike points out that a crescent is visible on the flag, so unless the US Army Air Corps was having a dress-up day, this photo is not likely to be of the Black Rock Desert.



The Clark Gable/Marilyn Monroe move "The Misfits" was not filmed on the Black Rock Desert.


James T. Neal's photo of the Black Rock Desert shows dunes similar to the dunes that started to appear in 2000.
I contacted Dr. Neal in July, 2010 and he stated that the photo was from 1963-1964 as the man in the photo transferred from Dr. Neal's employ in 1964.  The photo appeared in an October, 1970 article.

The reference is from the June 2006 BLM Environmental Assesment below.

Neal, James T., 1970. Playa Surface Features as Indicators of Environment, Proc. 1970 Playa Lake Symposium, Texas Tech Univ.

What's interesting here is that archive.org shows http://www.lib.ttu.edu as being removed on April 16, 2006, or possibly well before the Burning Man EA below was published in July, 2006 Happily, archive.org does have a cache of the site at


Aeolian sand deposits along the eastern shore of Rogers Lake, California (Fig. 24), typify problems of demarcating the playa boundary at numerous localities in many deserts. Erosional modification of the original pattern and subsequent deposition have rendered the boundary obscure. At Rogers Lake the sand has mantled the lacustrine deposits, and cementation has largely stabilized the dune topography, whereas it may be actively migrating elsewhere. Material identification can be improved through the complemental use of thermal infrared imagery and through the use of low-sun-angle photography to enhance shadows. The problems inherent in the photographic discrimination of blanket sand deposits are portrayed in Figure 25 where slight relief and similar reflectance levels create a difficult situation.

Figure 25: Veneer of sand ripples, Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Sand is moist (and thus dark) bur normally blends in with lacustrine playa sediments. (135 K) [ Figure 25 can be found at the archive.org cache of lib.ttu.edu, below is a larger format photo from Dr. Neal.]

(James T. Neal)

BlackRockDesert1926-1989.kmz is a Google Earth file that uses Google Earth's photo capability to determine roughly where the photo was taken. Interestingly, the Neal 1963-64 photo was taking 4 or 5 years before Heizer's land art piece was created but was in a location within 900 meters of Heizer's piece.  Formerly, I thought that the photo was taken in 1970 and the dunes could have been caused by Heizer's work, but this is not possible. The Neal 1963-64 photo is near a very busy entrance to the playa. In the kmz file, the Neal 1963-64 photo does not precisely match the horizon, this could be because of scaling artifacts from the printing process in the original publication or in the scanning process.

The Dunes are much worse now. It is great that there is a picture from 1963-64 showing that this is not a new process. What is different is that there are many more dunes that are much larger. See http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=Burning+Man+dunes&m=text


Family photo found on the web.

No dunes

(Mary Wilder Stoertz)


August, 1968: Michael Heizer comes to the Black Rock Desert and creates "Dissipate".

No dunes


See also Life magazine for a photo.

See also "After 'Dissipate'" for other resources.


Walter De Maria's 29 minute film Hard Core is shot on the Black Rock Desert.  On p 118 of "Earthworks", Suzaan Boettger writes that Michael Heizer appears with De Maria.:

"In 1969, Heizer and De Maria would play out their fantasies of Wild West virility in De Maria's twenty-nine-minute film "Hard Core", a slow, extremely spare drama on the Black Rock Desert, north of Reno, Nevada. Against ponderous soundtrack rhythms of cattle grunting, De Maria's drumming and ocean waves crashing (there is no dialog), the camera makes seven slow 360 pans of the austere landscapes horizontally bisected into expanses of blue sky above a bleached desert. Heizer wears a white cowboy hat. De Maria a black one, each pulled low over the forehead. As in the immensely popular 1966 western movie Clint Eastwood, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the camera level is low and looks up at the men's gun holsters from behind right. As they finger pistols decorated with old-fashioned arabesque carvings, the sonorous rhythm is suddenly punctuated by a shootout between them. Then to the roar of wind, the two "hard core" mavericks saunter away, magically unharmed"
De Maria's composition "Ocean Music", is available. De Maria went on to create The Lightening Field in New Mexico.  Below is photo from De Maria titled "Hard Core":

Below are a three frames from Hard Core via Clara Schulmann's Le Silo:
SFMoMA had a showing in June, 2010:

I'd like to buy a copy of Walter De Maria's Hard Core, please contact me at cxbrooks at gmail dot com if you know how I could obtain Hard Core.



Photo from "50 MIles Out of Gerlach/Bad Business", 45 RPM record.  The view is looking north towards the Calico mountains.  The "Gravity End" sign was likely originally sign from the Black Rock Desert Gunnery Range era.  Rumor has it that the signs were cut down in the late '90's or early '00's by a motorcycle group for safety reasons.

(Courtesy John Bogard, Planet X)


Late 80's photographs by Richard Misrach

Desert Croquet #1 (Deflated Earth)

(Richard Misrach)

Desert Croquet #3 (Balls, Plane, Car), Black Rock Desert

(Richard Misrach)

Tracks, Black Rock Desert, Nevada

(Richard Misrach)

No Dunes.


Far From Home filmed on the Black Rock Desert.

There are a few scenes at the end of Part 5 of Far From Home that show the desert and have no dunes.

No Dunes:

(Far From Home, 1989)



The Friends of the Black Rock website has this picture.

No dunes.
"Black Rock Desert Playa with large desiccation polygons;
view northeast, Black Rock Range on left, 20 Miles Distant, 8/17/95. Delores Cates photo."


Spencer Tunick's photo "Nevada Desert 1997."  I'm not yet sure exactly where this photo was taken, it might be Hualapai, which is where Burning Man 1997 was held.

On October 15, 1997 ThrustSSC breaks the speed of sound at Black Rock Desert.

See John Coppinger's Photo Diary and Richard Meredith-Hardy's Thrust pages for more from the event.

No dunes

(John Coppinger)

Moist; no dunes


(John Coppinger)

No dunes

(Richard Meredith-Hardy) 

(Richard Meredith-Hardy)

No dunes


(Cole Coonce)

Two undated photos from the ThrustSSC site:

(Robin Richardson)

(Robin Richardson)


(Stacey Campbell)


Burning Man 1998 occurred, roads are still visible in Google Maps for either 1998 or 1999:

View Larger Map

The Google Earth Placemark for Burning Man 1998 indicates the date of the image in the lower left.  In October, 2009, Google earth indicated the image was taken on May 25, 2006. Google Earth's View -> Historical Imagery can be used to obtain the image from September 17, 2003 that shows two sets of roads, one from 1998 and one from 1999.  The Burning  Man website says that 1998 was the first year that a drag was used to smooth the playa.


These undated photos are associated with the "Lovelock A Inventory Project Report", which mentions an August 4, 1999 site visit.

(United States Army Corps of Engineers)
(United States Army Corps of Engineers)
(United States Army Corps of Engineers)



April 17, 2000: BLM Email

From Mike_Bilbo@nv.blm.gov  Mon Apr 17 17:58:39 2000
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To: Many addresses removed Message-ID: <882568C5.00051525.00@LMNV1.nv.blm.gov> Date: Mon, 17 Apr 2000 17:55:30 -0700 Subject: Playa Safety Alert - Transient Dunes Some of you will get this twice because I put several group lists together for this alert. New transient dunes have formed on the Black Rock Desert playa west of the Coyote Springs vicinity (landsailor Brian Covey GPSd about a 4-mile swath yesterday), and are a potential safety hazard. We need to get the word out to respective publics through websites and other means. The central playa trackways are partially covered by these dunes in certain areas and persons used to travelling at high speed, day or night, might hit these due to low visibility (sun angle, darkness, color blending, travel direction, mirage, etc). For those of you who are not familiar with Coyote Springs, it is one of three mound springs northwest of the Garrett Place (Frog Farm, Bordello Spring). It is the area that Doug Keister has the annual golf tournament. These dunes also overlay parts of the land speed record trackway, especially the measured mile area. This week and weekend (4/18-23), one of our geologists, Delores Cates and volunteer Sue McMurray, and some other persons, are going to map this phenomenom. I have asked Sue and Chet Geyer to help with AeroPac's radio-controlled plane in doing low altitude aerial photo documentation. Sue McMurray is going to spend the rest of this week documenting this feature. Delores told me the dune graines are different than the normal clay-silt mounds on the playa margins. This may be a function of certain weather, wind patterns, ice/wind deposition, seasonal ripples, or maybe the more or less dry winter - and maybe a combination of all. But there may also be other factors related to ancient Lake Lahonton/playa weathering processes. Unfortunately, there have been very limited studies done on Black Rock Desert playa weathering effects, and very few studies on playas in general. It is important to note that BLM is not in a research mode at this time. We do have some questions about how this feature formed. But the main thing right now is to get the feature documented, especially with reference to the visiting public and permit events. Because the feature appears to be a natural phenomenon, but also unique and a potential safety hazard, we will document and GPS this feature through staff and volunteer coordination to learn its physical extent. This information will then be passed on to you so that you can alert your respective friends, associates, customers and the general public.


June 27: Porsche brings out a number of cars for the press.  See "The Ten Best Cars Larry Has Ever Driven", which puts the date at June 27.  A July 22, 2000 Toronto Star article has no date. The October 10, 2000 NY Times article "Behind the Wheel/Porsche 911 Turbo; Exploring the need for Speed: 175 m.p.h and a Cloud of Dust" covers the event and says "In the unforgiving heat of July".

(Laura Levy)
The photo has no obvious dunes, but who would race a $120K automobile at 175 mph over dunes?   More photos and placing this photo using Google Earth would be useful.

July 31: "Preliminary Analysis of Playa Bedforms of the Black Rock Desert, Washoe County, Nevada"
by D. Craig Young, Jr. Private communication.

"An analysis that indicates that the dunes were created by surface:

The bedforms currently present on the Black Rock playa are distinctly different from common silt dunes. They have well sorted, generally symmetrical sedimentary structures. The sorting of sand-sized grains (coalesced silt and clay particles) shows a distinct coarsening upward (i.e., particle size increases upward through the bedform with the largest particles deposited last). The bedforms rest unconformably on the playa surface; it is possible to trace the modern playa surface below individual bedforms. (There have been suggestions posted on the BLM's Black Rock e-mail mailing list that these features may be the result of tectonic deformation, frost- or salt-heaving, or other subsurface processes. The unconformable position of the bedforms shows that they are a result of surface processes.) Individual bedforms also show the regular polygonal cracking associated with the wetting and drying of the lakebed. This suggests that the bedforms have been wet since their deposition.

The general morphology of the bedforms suggests that they were likely formed beneath the waters of the shallow playa lake that covered portions of the basin early this year. The distinct particle sorting, their general distribution, and desiccation cracking point toward a lacustrine or lakebed origin. Wind action on the surface of the shallow lake influenced the pattern of bedform deposition, and the general fluid dynamics of both wind and water acted to form -like features. The seasonal lake that forms at the end of the Quinn River system is subjected to the vagaries of seasonal storms and wind direction. The shallow lake, moved by the winds of an approaching storm, can easily shift to cover a new portion of the playa.


It is likely that the socio-cultural record of the Black Rock playa is most significant in explaining the presence of the playa "dunes". The increased use of the playa resulted in a concurrent increase in sediment budget due primarily to vehicle traffic associated with large-scale events. The previous playa equilibrium was affected as the sediment budget crossed a threshold where seasonal reworking could not reestablish open playa conditions. A recent increase in sediment load in the seasonal playa lake resulted in bedform formation. The playa system is moving toward a new equilibrium associated with the new sediment budget by establishing "dunes" on the open playa."


August 16: BLM site: Black Rock Desert Travel Advisory (with photos)

Page dated as being last updated on July 17, 2001. Archive.org has this page as first appearing on August 16, 2000.

(Mike Bilbo?)

(Mike Bilbo?)


August 24: www.portofentry.org website about playa conditions at the Burning Man airport:

"There are playa serpents on both sides. The area to the southwest of the Airport Camp is filled with playa serpents. For those who don't know, playa serpents are little dunes, lumps, bumps, curvy hillocks in the otherwise smooth and flat dry lake bed. They are numerous in areas that were smooth last year. They may all be gone next year. Don't take the desert for granted."


August/September: Dune at Burning Man


(Tansy Brooks)


Philippe Glade's 2011 book "Black Rock City, NV: The Ephemeral Architecture of Burning Man" has a photo from 2001:
(Philippe Glade)


The book Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty is published

Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty
William L. Fox, University of Nevada Press, 2002, ISBN 0874175232, 9780874175233, 220p

page 174 says:

"John Bogard and his friends of Planet X landsail out here on their three-wheeled dirtboats, and the "playa serpents," "desert snake," or "reefs," as the low dunes have been variously labeled are hazardous to their health, invisible as they are to anyone running at high speeds across the playa. Bogard has file a complaint with the BLM about their not doing a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement of Burning Man, believing that the event has simply gotten too large for it to be held on a fickle surface, that is, in essence, his backyard. The complaint alleges that fugitive dust from Burning Man piles up as transient dunes, but the link to cause and effect is only conjecture at this point. It's as or more likely that the vastly increased OHV activity may have caused the dunes, or the Breedlove versus Nobel/Green competition, or that they are even the result of some undetermined natural subsurface activity. Yet another theory in the Winnemucca Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management is that they were deposited by wind-drive water from flash floods. Whateer the cause, pictures of similar features that existed temporarily in the same area were taken as early as 1970."

The reference to 1970 is likely Neal1970 above.

August 7: "August 7, 2002 - The Black Rock Desert. Mel and Coyote laying out lines for the surveying of Black Rock City, the location where Burning Man takes place every year leading up to Labor Day."

September 17-19: Ian [Kluft's] Pictures from CSXT's Space Shot 2002 (photos). Note that there are more serpents

"Near the CSXT cleanup area, we took this picture of the "serpent garden" which many of us had noticed over the previous days in the Burning Man cleanup zone. There were more "playa serpents" (mini dunes) here than any of us had ever seen in one place before. This seemed like compelling evidence in favor of the local residents' theory that playa serpent formation is radically accelerated by massive disruptions of the playa surface by the 40,000-person party at Burning Man."

playa serpents becoming dune field

(Ian Kluft)


Google Earth's Historical Imagery may be use to show that the roads for Burning Man 2003 were still visible in 2006.

September 21: Portland State Aerospace Society visit.   Is that a dune in the upper center?

Todo: find more photos of dunes from these years.  The primary focus of this site is to find photos of dunes before 2000, but more photos after 2000 would be useful.


January 25: Jeff DeLong, "Web campaign fires on Burning Man," Reno Gazette-Journal

"The BLM already has proposed a study on "playa dynamics" that would examine, among other things, small and unexplained sand dunes noticed in the vicinity of the festival in recent years.

"Not enough is known about it," Cooper said."

Cooper is "David Cooper, chief of the BLM's Black Rock Desert unit."

"A phenomenon called "playa serpents" is becoming increasingly common on the playa. These playa serpents are low-lying dunes that form due to wind action. OPINION: Some people theorize that they are caused by disturbance of heavier sediments on the surface of the playa than normally are disturbed by wind alone, resulting in a less stable surface. This disturbance is probably more likely to happen with 30,000 people and their cars out on the playa. In 1997, the land speed record was set at Black Rock Desert. Since then, the playa serpents have become much more numerous, and such a feat may not be possible at Black Rock anymore, since simply driving a car out there can be difficult. FACT: Dave Cooper, NCA Manager, has recognized that not enough is known about playa serpents. "BLM has proposed a study of "playa dynamics" that would include an examination of small, mysterious sand dunes observed near the festival site in recent years." (RGJ article)"


May 27: Photos of the Quinn River reaching the middle of the Black Rock Desert.  More water would likely help smooth out the dunes.

(Laura Levy)


June: Burning Man 2006-2010 Special Recreation Permit NV-020-06-EA-11 Environmental Assessment, prepared by the BLM:

"The sediments of the playa surface are subject to displacement by winds when dry and disturbed. Winds that most commonly move thsurface materials are associated with frontal passage or thunderstorms. Wind movement of sediment particles caperiodic formation of low, transient dunes. Wind erosion is a function oparticle erodibility, surface roughness and weather conditions. Vehicle use and other disturbances on the playa alter the surface roughness. Increased roughness slows sediment particle movement across the surface, causing particles to accumulate on the leeward side of low features forming transient dunes. The dunes are temporary featuresgenerally less than a foot in height. The actions of wind and water over one or more winters lead to the removal of the dunes. These dunes have become increasingly common over the past several years, but have been documented prior to periods of heavy human activity on the playa surface (Neal 1970)."

The (Neal 1970) reference is discussed above.


September 27: AERO-PAC Playa Serpents

Archive.org first cached this page on 9/27/2006. The page has pictures of two incidental dunes, one of which is the same as above, the other is below.


(Mike Bilbo)


July/August issue of Nevada Magazine includes this photo:

August 27: Article on the Reno Gazette Journal website

The Cooper being quoted is probably Dave Cooper, "manager of Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area."

"The condition of the Black Rock Desert varies each year, depending on moisture levels, Cooper said. Drought has caused some ripples or bumps in the sand, known as "playa serpents."

"Does Burning Man change the state of the playa? No," he said. "If it did, it would be a small amount."

"There are 110 miles of vehicle routes that are entrenched that drivers follow out here. Those could be permanent scars, but they have nothing to do with Burning Man."

Cooper said environmental impacts of Burning Man are miniscule and that it's hardly one of the largest environmental concerns.

Burning Man is in a fenced-off area of almost 5 square miles. The Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area is 815,000 square miles and is neighbored by another 375,000 of wilderness outside the National Conservation Area, according to BLM."

Other events that occur on the Black Rock Desert have at most 200 people.
This year, Burning Man—at almost 50,000 people—is 250 times that.


September 7: Steve Fossett goes missing while "scouting dry land beds suitable for his record-breaking attempt"

If the Black Rock Desert was not in such poor shape . . .

Image from oilpunk.com.
Note the trash fence dune on the left side of the picture that runs through camp.


(Jon Sarriugarte)


March: Wind-powered car breaks record at Ivanpah, outside of Las Vegas

If the Black Rock Desert was not in such poor shape . . .

May: Jim Denevan does land art on the Black Rock Desert.  See more photos at http://www.aiphotodesigns.com/Denevan/. I was not aware of this work until December 2009, though the piece was not noticeable by Memorial Day. In July 2009, I was up on one of the hills overlooking the playa and probably would have seen it.  Interestingly, the piece is near the site of Heizer's 1968 work, "Dissipate".

June: North American Eagle - World Land Speed Challenger

Good news! The North American Eagle - World Land Speed Challenger is on the Black Rock, doing testing for a Land Speed Record. However, they describe the Black Rock: "There is considerable rubble on the surface, so defodding is necessary." This is fairly standard practice, something similar was done for ThrustSSC.

On June 6, the North American Eagle site says: "The playa will be in excellent shape for our test runs."  However, in 2010, it appeared that American Eagle was negotiating with the BLM to use Diamond Valley.


May 12: Photo by Tee Poole
(Tee Poole, Some Rights Reserved)

June: 2nd wettest June in Reno, 3rd wettest in Lovelock

June, 2009 was the third wettest June in Reno (1.52 inches) and the second wettest June in Lovelock (2.10 inches). On July 1, 2009, Weather Underground for Lovelock, NV said:

Top ten wettest junes on record for Reno
June 2009 ranks as the third wettest

year monthly total in inches
1920 1.94
1989 1.53
2009 1.52 ***
1932 1.40
1998 1.39
1938 1.31
1965 1.31
1969 1.29
1995 1.29
1892 1.27

Top ten wettest junes on record for Lovelock
June 2009 ranks as the second wettest

year monthly total in inches
1958 2.11
2009 2.10 ***
1967 2.04
1993 1.83
1970 1.69
1982 1.39
1998 1.36
1995 1.35
1977 1.34
1963 1.04

This might help explain North American Eagle's comment about the quality of the surface being good. On Memorial Day, I found the surface to be poor, with a loose fluffy layer in many locations that before 2000 were hard packed. The incidental dunes continue to be a hazard, these dunes were not there before 2000. The wet June helped improve the surface after Memorial Day, but the post 2000 dunes continue to be a problem.

Todo: consider finding rainfall data for other years.

September 19, 2009: National Geographic blogs about Burning Man and includes an image.  Laura Levy points out that the image is probably from 2006 because the Belgian Waffle is visible. The credit says "Ikonos satellite image courtesy Geoeye.". Unfortunately,  in the blog entry, Larry Harvey is quoted as saying "No roads, no buildings, no trash—as if we were never there."  See below for evidence of the 2007 and 2008 Burning Man events was still visible during the 2009 event.

October, 2009: Laura Levy at http://www.spatial-ed.com/ pointed out the 2008 Burning Man Poster at http://marketplace.burningman.com/catalog.php?act=view_prod_info&id_prod=52526&i=&l=&sid=ad89fe42e52dc7997650d4a6ddaeec60 that shows the 2007 dune.  Below is an image from Laura's site with the dune highlighted:

Bad enough that the 2008 image shows the 2007 trash fence, but the 2009  Burning Man gigapan images at http://gigapan.org/gigapans/fullscreen/34311/ show the 2008 roads just above the the 2009 location.  How is this considered "Leave No Trace"?

Porsche ad features the Black Rock Desert. It is not clear when the footage was shot. Porsche was out on the Black Rock in 2000.
Porsche advertisement
The "Making Of" indicates that most of those cars were never on the desert

Bugatti Veyron 16.4 high speed test drive Black Rock Desert. It is unclear when this video was taken.

November, 2009

The Toshiba Space Chair advertisement features a balloon launch from the Black Rock Desert.
The "Making Of" video shows some of the dunes.


May 24, 2010: Desert Research Institute study released:
 Ken Adams, Don Sada, "Black Rock Playa, Northwestern Nevada: Physical Processes and Aquatic Life", Desert Research Institute
The paper refers to this site, specifically Jon Sarriugarte's 2008 picture.  The paper also mentions James T. Neal's 1970 photo.

The Wikipedia page showing the 2010 site shows the 2007 trash fence.  Click on the link and look at the line from 5:30 to 3:00.
Burning Man 2010 via Wikipedia
(Kyle Harmon, via WikipediaCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)


April, 2011: We drove on to the Black Rock Desert from 12 mile and experienced the wind driven water effect.

June/July, 2011: The Black Rock Desert was wet enough to prevent driving straight across from 12 mile to Frog in June.  However, it dried nicely in time for the July 4th weekend, though two of our party got stuck.  In June, the trash fence dune was clearly visible from the Soldier Meadows Road.  Overall, the surface seemed better than the previous year, though there are still plenty of obvious dunes.

August, 2011: Mark Robison's article "Fact Checker: Are serpent dunes traces of Burning Man?" appears in the Reno Gazette-Journal.  I enjoyed speaking with Mark by phone, but I don't agree with his analysis.  Mark writes:

"Nevada's Black Rock Desert is one of the world's unique geologic locations. Activities there are worth scrutinizing to determine if it's being harmed."
"In this case, the concerns appear unfounded."

In particular, I don't agree with some of Ken Adams' comments.

The article attributes the following to Ken:
"Two, he doesn't see vegetation growing atop the dunes, thus increasing their permanency and size, because the playa sediment is not hospitable to vegetation."

Ken has not seen vegetation, but I have.  The photos below were taken in October 2011:
Black Rock Desert Dune plants, October, 2011, Looking North
Looking East
Black Rock Dunes Plants, October, 2011, Looking East.
A close up
Black Rock Desert Dunes Plants, October, 2011 Close up.
That's not much vegetation, but it is the first time I've seen vegetation that far south.  There has always been vegetation up by the Quinn River, but not at this location, roughly 5 miles from the 12 mile entrance (40 48' 43.2  x 119 10' 15.6).

View Larger Map

Ken is quoted as saying:

"Three, the serpent dunes are not actually permanent."

I agree that some of the dunes move around.  Dunes in large areas tend to migrate downwind.  However, the 2007 Trash Fence Dune was visible in July, 2011 from the Soldier Meadow's Road.  Unfortunately, I don't have a photo. The main point is: The dunes are new since 2000.  I've found only one picture of dunes before 2000.  Wouldn't someone have found the dunes to be interesting enough to photograph?  The dunes are new, and whether they move around or not besides the point.

Future Plans

It would be nice to get more photos, especially from after 2000.
Doing a survey of the dunes would be of interest.
Comparing the state of the Black Rock Desert Playa with the state of other playas, such as Bluewing and Adobe would be of interest.
I'd like to get a copy of De Maria's Hard Core.


The dunes were first documented in 1963-64.  Other than the 1963-64 photo, no other photos from 1926-1999 have shown the particular type of dunes shown in the 1963-64 photo.

In 2000, the dunes appeared in large numbers have been getting much larger and more numerous over time.

Burning Man needs to stop using "Leave No Trace" and use something like "Tread Lightly".

Mapping the dunes to get a baseline would help determine if the dune problem is getting worse and the orientation of the dunes with regard to the Burning Man site.

The Burning Man organization tries quite hard to reduce the impact of the event. This problem is caused by the amount of dust disturbed by the attendees. The best solution would be for Burning Man to buy land elsewhere and hold the event there. The perfect solution would be land from an open-pit mine that needed reclaiming.

About the photos

The photos above are from various sources and mostly used without permission.


Contact me at cxbrooks at gmail

Christopher Brooks,
Aug 2, 2009, 11:17 AM
Christopher Brooks,
Jul 22, 2012, 7:18 AM