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This illustration shows how a rain shadow forms on the wind-protected side of a mountain.
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Rain Shadow

A rain shadow is a dry region of land on the side of a mountain range that is protected from winds. The protected side of a mountain range is also called the lee side or the down-wind side.

Winds carry air toward the mountain range. As the air rises up over a mountain range, the air cools, water vapor condenses, and clouds form. This side of the mountains is called the windward side, and it is where precipitation falls in the form of rain or snow. The windward side of a mountain range is moist and lush because of this precipitation.

Once the air passes over the mountain range, it moves down the other side, warms, and dries out. This dry air produces a rain shadow. Land in a rain shadow is very dry and receives much less precipitation and cloud cover than land on the windward side of the mountain range.

Rain shadow deserts can be found all over the world. Some rain shadow deserts in the United States include the dry land east of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon, and the Colorado Front Range east of the Rocky Mountains. Rain shadow deserts can be found in other areas of the world, including the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is in a rain shadow created by both the Andes Mountains and weather patterns over the Pacific Ocean.

Last modified October 17, 2008 by Becca Hatheway.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA