California’s Death Valley is renowned for its arid climate – making one particular phenomenon in the region rather unexpected.
It’s March in Death Valley, California, and the snow-capped peaks of the Panamint Range sparkle against the deep blue sky. And below those mountains, a dry expanse of desert usually stretches out as far as the eye can see. But now something is very different: a vast lake of water has mysteriously emerged in one of the driest places on Earth.
From Africa’s sprawling Sahara to Asia’s vast Gobi, deserts make up around a third of the landmass on planet Earth. And, technically, “desert” can be used to describe any region that experiences minimal rainfall throughout the year. Understandably, then, the word tends to make us think of hot, arid and inhospitable places – and in most cases, that’s an accurate stereotype.
For example, researchers in Libya once reported a world record of 136 °F in the Sahara, although said measurement has since been disputed. Outside of the polar regions, meanwhile, the driest place on Earth is the Atacama Desert in South America. In some parts of this plateau, the average rainfall is as low as 0.04 inches a year.
Plus, although flora and fauna do thrive in some deserts, such arid regions are generally considered to be among the least liveable places on our planet. Perhaps it will come as no surprise, then, that one of the world’s most famous desert landscapes has a suitably macabre name. Stretching for some 3,000 square miles across Eastern California, Death Valley is infamous for its fearsomely hot environment.
In California, Death Valley forms part of the Mojave, which is a type of rain shadow desert. Essentially, these kinds of landscapes are formed when mountain ranges prevent weather systems from reaching the ground below, thus creating areas where very little precipitation falls. Peaks can attract moisture from the air to their windward sections, you see, and this consequently forms a drier region on the opposite side.
And according to legend, Death Valley earned its eerie moniker from a party of explorers who passed through during the mid-19th century. On that occasion, they apparently lost their way and became convinced that they would never make it out of the barren area alive. Fortunately, however, they are said to have ultimately escaped, after which a member of the group allegedly uttered the immortal words “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
Even today, it’s easy to see why those adventurers were so afraid of Death Valley. After all, one of its regions, Furnace Creek, has held the record for world’s highest temperature – a staggering 134°F – ever since that Libyan measurement was disqualified. And owing to such unforgiving conditions, much of Death Valley’s landscape is largely devoid of life.
Soberingly, Death Valley also continues to live up to its name, with the arid landscape having claimed the lives of a number of ill-prepared hikers and day-trippers over the years. Experts suggest, in fact, that going just a little over half a day without water in the desert heat there can be enough to cause fatal dehydration.
But despite these risks, Death Valley remains a popular tourist destination. And in 2016 more people than ever before came to the area; some 1.3 million individuals braved the sizzling temperatures to explore this unique landscape. In March 2019, though, one visitor to the typically dry spot found a lot more than they had bargained for.
Early that month, a storm had torn through Southern California and drenched the area in rainfall that far surpassed the average for March. The region typically sees around 0.3 inches of precipitation during this period; over the course of just a single day between March 6 and 7, though, as much as 0.84 inches was recorded.
And on March 7, 2019, California-based photographer and physicist Elliot McGucken was in Death Valley attempting to document the results of the storm. Initially, he intended to visit Badwater Basin, which is a deep depression that plunges almost 300 feet below sea level – making it the lowest spot in the whole of North America.
It’s worth noting, though, that Death Valley is no stranger to rainfall. Back in 2015, for example, a spell of wet weather had seen up to 2 inches of precipitation fall across that area of the Mojave over a short space of time. And in the aftermath of the deluge, the region experienced its worst flooding since records had begun. At Badwater Basin, for example, the normally bone-dry landscape filled up with water, creating a vast lake on the middle of the desert floor.
And while the infrastructure around Badwater Basin was still suffering from the flood damage four years later, the spectacular lake itself had long dried up. But McGucken hoped that the striking feature would reappear after Death Valley experienced another period of unusually high rainfall in March 2019.
Intent on capturing the phenomenon with his camera, McGucken headed out in the direction of Badwater Basin. He soon found, however, that he was unable to reach his intended destination. In fact, the photographer could only make it as far as Salt Creek – a typically dried-up lake bed that is located just over 20 miles north of Badwater Basin.
There, McGucken discovered that his way was blocked by the very same phenomenon that he had been searching for: an ephemeral lake, formed by water flooding over the parched soil of Death Valley. And amazingly, this temporary geological feature was even bigger than its prior equivalent at Badwater Basin.
In fact, authorities could only guess at the extent of the giant new lake. “I believe we would need aerial photos to accurately determine the size,” a representative of Death Valley National Park told McGucken, according to SFGate. “From the road, it looks like [the lake] stretched from approximately Harmony Borax Works to Salt Creek right after the rain, which is a little less than ten road miles. But the road does curve a bit, so it’s not an entirely accurate guess.” Yet one question remains: how did such an enormous body of water appear in North America’s driest environment?
Well, the typically arid conditions in the region are apparently key to the sudden appearance of this mysterious lake. “Because water is not readily absorbed in the desert environment, even moderate rainfall can cause flooding in Death Valley,” meteorologist Chris Dolce told
Smithsonian in March 2019.
“Flash flooding can happen even where it is not raining,” Dolce continued. “Normally dry creeks or arroyos can become flooded due to rainfall upstream.” So, with Death Valley experiencing almost a third of its yearly rainfall over one 24-hour period, it’s perhaps little surprise that Salt Creek soon transformed into a massive pool of water.
What’s more, once the rain finds its way to the valley floor, it can be difficult for the moisture to escape. “The desert soils are dry and compact,” Todd Lericos, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told SFGate in March 2019. “It’s like putting water on concrete.” And at the University of Reading in southern England, hydrologist Hannah Cloke agreed.
“When the rainfall is very heavy [or] prolonged, or you get lots of storms one after the other, it can only take a matter of hours to create a lake appearance on dry ground,” Cloke explained in a March 2019 interview with
Newsweek. “Of course, in wetter parts of the world, we see such flooding regularly.”
However, Cloke explained that extreme flooding was very rare in desert landscapes such as Death Valley. “I haven’t seen anything quite like that before,” she admitted. Elsewhere, Death Valley’s chief of education and interpretation, Patrick Taylor, said that the lake is the biggest that he has seen at Salt Creek during his six-year career.
It’s likely that McGucken was awed by the lake, too. When he first caught sight of the phenomenon, the weather was blustery – typical conditions for Death Valley. After the breeze subsided, though, the photographer was confronted with an eerily serene scene.
And, fortunately, McGucken was able to capture some stunning photographs of the remarkable lake. In the snaps, the still waters perfectly reflect the snow-capped summit of Telescope Peak – the loftiest pinnacle in Death Valley. The captivating shots have been liked hundreds of times on Instagram, too.
“It’s a surreal feeling seeing so much water in the world’s driest place,” McGucken told SFGate, although the region is technically only the most arid in North America rather than on the planet as a whole. “There’s an irony, even though I couldn’t get down to Badwater Basin. Overall, I think these shots are probably more unique.”
It appears, too, that the unexpected emergence of the lake represents something profound about the way in which McGucken practices his art. “Nature presents this ephemeral beauty, and I think a lot of what photography is about is searching for it and then capturing it,” he explained.
However, ephemeral lakes aren’t the only eye-catching natural phenomenon that can be created by excess rainfall in desert regions. Back in 2016, for instance, Death Valley was the scene of an event that’s known as a “superbloom.” This amazing spectacle is typically created after large amounts of precipitation fall at certain times of the year.
As what caused this particular superbloom, it’s down to the floodwaters that had formed the lake on the dry bed of Badwater Basin in late 2015. Come the following spring, then, and an incredible number of flowers appeared across the region. Remarkably, the once-bleak landscape of Death Valley was transformed by masses of colorful yellow blossom – a flower that’s known appropriately as desert gold.
According to experts, the last such superbloom in Death Valley had occurred back in 2005, so the event that happened more than a decade later was certainly a sight to behold. And even though the rains of 2019 haven’t as yet triggered the phenomenon in Badwater Basin, visitors to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California’s Colorado Desert were able to experience a similar vision throughout March of that year.
What’s more, the lakes of Death Valley certainly aren’t the only examples of geographical features popping up where they are least expected. Over in Nevada, for instance, the desert that plays host to the famous Burning Man festival also welcomes some unusual water formations throughout the year.
Apparently, Black Rock Desert is a type of landscape known as a
playa, which translates from Spanish as “beach.” There, small, temporary lakes sometimes form when melting snow or rainwater collects in hollows in the ground. After a while, though, the bodies of water simply evaporate away – leaving only a stunning layer of minerals in their wake.
And, according to experts, these desert phenomena could even play a vital role in increasing our knowledge of planet Earth. “It is important to study a variety of physical and biological systems to gain a more complete understanding of the rates and magnitudes of past climate changes, which may shed light on the effects of future climate changes,” researcher Kenneth Adams told
Environmental Monitor in 2014.
Plus, it’s not just the United States that has played host to ephemeral bodies of water over the years. Over in Australia, in fact, hundreds of temporary salt lakes are known to form across the states of the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Amazingly, the biggest – known as Lake Mackay – can at times cover almost 1,350 square miles.
When rain fills Lake MacKay with a shallow layer of water, in fact, it becomes the biggest lake in the whole of Western Australia. The feature is so significant, too, that it plays an important part in many of the region’s Aboriginal myths and legends. For much of the year, however, the area is little more than a dry bed.
In South America, meanwhile, Argentina’s Patagonian Desert is dotted with ephemeral lakes and rivers. Apparently, these form when snow from the peaks of the Andes melts and runs down into the valleys below. And even in Africa’s Sahara – the biggest desert on the planet – temporary streams known as
wadis can be found scattered across the landscape.
But it’s also worth mentioning that lakes aren’t the only natural phenomena that have been known to be ephemeral. There have been cases, for instance, of entire land masses that are reportedly only visible at certain times of the year or even at specific times of day. These visions have historically been known as vanishing islands and are important in mythology and legends around the world.
The concept of the vanishing island lives on in modern times as well. For example, in 1852 a small volcanic land mass formed in the South Pacific somewhere to the south of Vava’u in Tonga. Known as Home Reef, the area has disappeared and reappeared a number of times over the years – last emerging to shock a Swedish explorer back in 2006.
In fact, volcanic eruptions are a relatively common cause of ephemeral islands that emerge from the sea only long enough to cause a stir before disappearing into the depths below. Even so, this bizarre phenomenon never ceases to amaze and entrance.
But although these temporary geographical features are often a source of delight for tourists and photographers alike, incidents such as the flooding of Death Valley could be a sign of far more terrifying things to come. Some experts believe, for instance that California could be in line for a catastrophic event called Atmospheric River 1,000, also referred to as ARkstorm.
Apparently, the hypothetical ARkstorm could see torrential downpours descend on the state, drenching the coast in rainfall levels not seen for at least 500 years. And with flood defenses in the region likely incapable of withstanding such conditions, it’s predicted that vast swathes of land could end up submerged. The damage caused by such a disaster would also be prohibitive – perhaps at least $700 billion.
But for now, at least, ephemeral bodies of water such as the one in Death Valley appear to pose little threat to the Californian environment as a whole. In fact, although the Salt Creek lake was reportedly still present after McGucken’s visit, park authorities noted that it was decreasing in size. And no doubt the desert floor will soon dry up once more, leaving no trace of the floodwaters behind.