1. Death Valley

Death Valley is one of the most arid places on planet Earth. Every year, the valley gets around 2.4 inches of rain. Compare that to places like western Washington (37.3 inches per year) or New York (46.23 inches per year). Either way, the place is notoriously bereft of water.

a sand dune with mountains in the background
NPS

Some common folklore surrounding the valley’s name helps explain this nature. Migrants had been traveling through the region en route to California. Once they had finally passed through, succumbing to the arid heat, one traveler had exclaimed, “Goodbye, Death Valley.” Apocryphal or not, the story helps to indicate the sheer dryness and barrenness of the land.

2. What happens in the dry…

Dry deserts like Death Valley are often inhospitable places for flora and fauna. The Sahara Desert in northern Africa, for instance, is an extreme example. Since the land is dry, lacking water, and mostly made of sand, things like agriculture are exceptionally difficult. And because of this, inhabiting the land is not too common.

sand dunes
Pixabay

Other deserts bare the same burden. The Gobi Desert in Asia, which lies just northeast of the Himalayas, is similarly dry and devoid of life. The environments are not those in which lakes form. They are by definition deserts, which suggests that they barely get enough rain to fill a cup of water. Okay, it’s not that bad. But it’s pretty darn close…

3. Unbearable heat…

The heat of the world’s different deserts makes the formation of a lake highly unlikely. Take, for example, Libya. Libya is one of those regions located smack in the middle of the Saharan desert in Africa. During some seasons, it has reached a record heat of around 136 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s pretty hot.

desert with dry rock peeking out
Pxhere

When in such heat, water doesn’t fare too well. The way this works is through heat’s effect on the H2O molecules that make up the water. With added heat comes an increase in the movement of the molecules. And with increased movement comes increased volatility. The more heat, the more the molecules move—and the more they move, the more they accelerate apart and evaporate.

4. In rain’s shadow…

Why do these deserts form in areas that are so near to other types of environments? The answer lies in the convection currents on the global scale. Here, we have atmospheric conditions (mostly wind, in this case) that change as they move over other types of terrain (in this case, mountains).

dry desert soil
Pxhere

This happens all across the world. In Death Valley, the desert is created by the surrounding mountain ranges. The mountains induce all of the wind coming from around the valley to rise. As that wind rises, it releases all of its moisture. This means the wind that reaches the other side is far more arid. And thus, a desert is born. So how did all this moisture get here?

5. The most dangerous region…

Deserts of this hot and dry nature are some of the most dangerous places on planet Earth. While it’s difficult to find an exact estimate on the number of people who die per year (often zero people) in them, many people have died. And while the most common way through which tourists perish in the park is through car accidents, many others have been lost to the heat.

people in death valley in a derelict village
Pxhere

Oftentimes, this jeopardy in health is due to the extreme heat that those who pass through the park suffer. They get dehydrated, fatigued, and can pass out from the associated problems. When this happens, those who have passed out can suffer heat stroke and severe cerebral damage. The result has been death.

6. The necessities…

For people to survive in deserts like Death Valley, they need lots and lots of water. This is especially true during the warmer months like July and August. During these months of apex temperatures, water is an absolute necessity. While the amount varies per season, you’ll likely need many gallons to bear these hotter seasons.

a camal drinking water
Pxhere

As your body dehydrates, it tries to maintain whatever moisture it does have. To do this, it shuts off the amount of water that your kidneys send to your bladder (which darkens your urine). You also sweat less—and as a result, your body begins to warm. These effects continue until your blood coagulates. Eventually, you faint from the trouble.

7. Lost visitors…

With such risks, some might assume that the venture is too dangerous to risk. Fortunately, this hasn’t been the case. Many view the park as well worth a visit. And they would be right. The park in fact experienced some of its highest volume of visitors in these past couple years.

people walking on the grand canyon
Wikimedia

In 2016, for instance, there were over 1.3 million visitors to the park throughout the year. Just to give you some idea of what that means in context, consider Bryce Canyon, which has a yearly visitor frequency of around 2 million. The Grand Canyon has around 4 million. While the numbers might seem diminutive, you have to consider that the place reaches unbearable levels of heat.

8. March brought something strange

In March of 2019, something strange appeared to happen in this hot and dry desert. One visitor, as he descended upon one of the park’s more frequented landmarks, noticed that water began to form and swell around him. The amount only grew as the minutes wore on.

water in death valley
Pxhere

The man became frightened, dismayed, and discontented. It was probably wise at this point to leave. Either way, something strange was happening in this park, and it took a moment for those bearing witness to understand why. Water hasn’t appeared in this great an abundance for a long time. Now the question was aimed at finding out why…

9. Earlier that month…

To understand what caused this massive inundation, we should look back to the past. And here, we have the events of earlier that month. What had happened was rain—and massive amounts of it. But how would this rain permeate the miles of dry and vacant desert?

clouds over death valley
Flickr

Normally, March in Death Valley only sees around 0.3 inches of rain in the Death Valley region. This March, however, they saw over twice that: 0.84 inches. While this might not sound like a lot, the difference is substantial. But still, the question remained of this mysterious lake and its origins. So we must keep looking for the answer…

10. The lowest point in North America

In part what may have contributed to the formation of the lake was Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the United States. This area spans several miles and measures at around 300 feet below sea level. If water is to aggregate anywhere, then, Badwater Basin seems like a strong contender for where it will emerge.

Badwater basin, the lowest point in the united states
Pxhere

And so, on March 7, 2019, the photographer and physicist, Elliot McGucken, took a flight. While his initial intention was to visit Badwater Basin to see if the storm had affected it, he was taken aback by what he had seen before it. This thing was in part an explanation for this mysterious lake. But it was also in part an explanation for something else…

11. Flooding of the past

Before we can see what McGucken found, we should clarify that Death Valley has experienced similar storms before. These storms of several inches of rain within a short timeframe had brought with them a deluge of water. In past years, this water has been responsible for carving out the Valley’s features.

a man walking in the water of death valley lake
YouTube

In Death Valley, for instance, you can find slot canyons and dry falls that were carved by massive floods of water. This water, since it was so turbulent, worked to carve away slabs of rock and leave chutes and valleys in their wake. This storm in March would be only slightly different. It might not prove as shocking as initially thought, however…

12. Badwater Basin

The most salient features that McGucken had located were features carved from previous floods. These were the valleys and slot canyons we mentioned earlier. But when he had actually arrived at Badwater Basin, he had noticed something far more bizarre, something that would induce many people to puzzle.

badwater basin with water in the park
Pxhere

What he found here was the result of the deluge. At first, this appeared as flooding in other areas of the park that normally succumb to such things. But as he decreased his proximity to the park’s lowest point, he realized that something this March was far more extreme—something that took him by a major surprise.

13. Problems en route…

While McGucken was working his way toward Badwater Basin, he had to stop because of impediments on the roadway. These impediments were water-based and stopped him dead in his tracks. About 20 miles north of Badwater Basin, McGucken had to stop.

water in death valley from above
GoodFreePhotos

The water was substantial enough to not only make him ponder, but also enough to where it would take substantial circumnavigation to work his way around. To get to the basin, then, McGucken would have to engage in some careful movement across the Death Valley plains. Eventually, he would make it there. And when he did he was shocked…

14. The lake

As McGucken continued forward, he realized something jarring. And this was not only because he had never seen something so strange. It was also because he had never expected anything like this. What was now blocking his way was a giant and unprecedented lake.

death valley with a lake that shows the mountains
Wikimedia

This lake expanded a far greater territory than what McGucken thought possible. It was so large that if he wanted to cross it he would have to walk around its perimeter, meandering his way to the other side. But because the lake was so large, such an endeavor would take a great amount of time. And at the rate by which the lake was filling and growing, such a pursuit might not be possible…

15. So large as to defy expectations

People—not just McGucken—didn’t know how to respond to this lake. It was large enough to take the park’s authorities by surprise. The lake was so large that to accurately determine its size, the photographers would have to take to the air, monitoring the perimeter from a plane or helicopter.

water in death valley
GoodFreePhotos

Based off of the different features that the lake surrounded, however, scientists could take an approximate guess as to how large the lake was. This guess led them to believe that the lake was a staggering 10 miles wide. Considering that this is one of the driest places on Earth, people were dumbfounded by the sheer size of the lake.

16. The fault of the dry…

The dry and arid environments of the desert are in part what lead to such massive flooding. But how can this be? Most of it comes from the paucity of water-absorbing soil in the regions. Since there isn’t something to absorb and maintain the moisture, it easily just fills the areas where it shows up.

cracked ground in the dry desert
GoodFreePhotos

In environments so bereft of water-absorbing soil, flooding is common. The Nile River in northern Africa, for instance, would flood regularly. This was the basis for irrigation systems and the ability of societies to flourish around the river. And the same thing applies to Death Valley—with the exception of thriving ancient civilizations.

17. Beyond capacity…

This March, Death Valley had received approximately one third of its yearly rainfall in just one day. This deluge inundated the Salk Creek region of the park, filling it entirely with water. From many vantage points, the entire expanse of your purview would be surrounded by water.

death valley dry and beautiful
Pxhere

But what would happen to this pool with the advent of time? If the soil is incapable of absorbing such fluids, would they just remain stagnant, drowning out other flora and fauna in the park? Or, would it eventually dry up and evaporate to the hot and arid weather of the region? The answer to this question would soon be discovered…

18. Poured on concrete

Many have compared the water on dry sands as being analogous to concrete. If you pour water over concrete, the material is relatively impermeable. And, as a result, the water will just spread out beyond where it was poured. If you put enough onto the slab, it will flood.

death valley rocky bottom
Flickr

This is the same thing that happens to desert environments. While there is sand to get in the way, there is nothing there to absorb and prevent spreading. The result is that the water will diffuse easily to lateral areas, creating a planar surface through which the water will spread. The result is a lake—and in this case, a giant lake at that. 

19. Rare beyond belief…

While flooding is known to happen in regions as dry as Death Valley, it was not expected to be this extreme. 10 miles is a lot of land to fill. And somehow this was enough of a deluge to fill the entire valley floor. Many residents and workers at the park had suggested that they had never seen such a lake form.

Pxhere

While abundant rainfall has led to flooding in the past, it had never been of the same caliber as in this lake. Now, the question was how would the lake eventually disappear? This would be a dilemma the likes of which the senior park rangers never would have expected. And it’s this dilemma that would occupy them for the next few days…

20. Photographs

McGucken was able to capture several stunning photographs of the lake in Death Valley. Many of these were posted to McGucken’s Instagram. Some of these photos were so stunning that they induced all who saw them to tears. Okay, not exactly. But they do provide a scene that is not usual to the desert climate.

pink sunset over the death valley mountains
NPS

In one photo, you can see the highest peak in the area beaming from the reflection of the freshly formed lake. This peak, Telescope Peak, is 6,178 feet tall. Compared to the 300-feet-below-sea-level height of Badwater Basin, this is quite the disparity. Either way, beautifully scenic photos of the aberrant scene were captured.

21. Ephemeral beauty

McGucken thought that it was in part his duty to capture rare moments like this. Since nature is full of fleeting beauty, it is the job of the photographer to capture this. Since McGucken is a professional photographer, he sought to capture this rare moment of watery beauty while he had the opportunity.

people biking along death valley roads
NPS

And so, we can take lessons from this. If nature throws us something ephemeral, we should seek to capture its evanescent qualities while we can. And due to this rain, there was more than just one rare event that happened in this beautiful desert environment. This next one is something that would come after the rain…

22. New flowers…

With excess moisture comes an excess of scarce resources for the desert flora. Because these species are normally starved for water, the more water they get, the more quickly they will thrive. And that is what we saw in the wake of the giant lake formation. This was the emergence of wildflowers.

wildflowers in death valley
YouTube

After the water had subsided and left the valley back in its previous state, the ground was more nutritious than its barren quality was prior to this. And because of this, the increased fertility afforded the land a more robust season of flowers. And subsequent photos from the park show that these flowers have come in abundance.

23. Superbloom

Sometimes the water is enough to create a superbloom (despite the term’s misleading nature). A superbloom is an event in which the water in a desert is so sufficient that flowers will bloom all over the place. Death Valley has undergone superblooms on several occasions. In 2005, for instance, there was such an impressive natural event.

wildflowers in death valley
Flickr

This superbloom had covered much of the valley and surrounding hills in flowers, turning them orange and yellow. If you’d like to see the incredible beauty of a superbloom yourself, you should coordinate a trip such that you can arrive in a desert after a season with much rain. Then, you will see a landscape painted brilliantly by thousands of colorful flowers. The result will awe you.

24. Another finding in the desert…

Black Rock City, the temporary town erected by the Burning Man festival, holds secrets similar to those of Death Valley. And why, exactly, is that? Well, it has had its own fair share of spontaneously forming lakes. The city is built in the Nevada Desert—an area of comparable heat and aridity. Because of this, it is not too hard for the area to flood.

phosophous on death valley's mountains
Pxhere

When subjected to torrential downpours, then, the region is subject to sporadic lake formation. This makes even more sense when you look more broadly at what the landscapes of Death Valley and Black Rock City are made of: formations that geologists have named playa, which means “beach.”

25. Playing in the playa

Since playa means “beach,” you know that the area is made mostly of sand. As porous and shifting as sand is, the area can hold very little water. So when abundant rains come, the type of land taking the abuse will either be more contributory to either flooding or evaporation. With the right combination of water levels and geography, new lakes can form in unlikely locations.

woman walking across the sand dunes in death valley
YouTube

In areas such as these deserts, the water is just as likely to evaporate. It will, however, take some time for it to do so. While the heat of the air will certainly exacerbate the evaporation, it will still take time. But in the wake of the dissolved lake, something else was discovered that many might not have expected. These things aren’t wildflowers or makeshift cities…

26. Minerals

One of the things often leftover from these dried lakes is a sheet of minerals. With their dissolution comes the leftover remains of all the minerals the water was carrying. In some cases, this is just salt. But in other instances, it is a concoction of iron, magnesium, and others.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, in Death Valley, California. What a wonderful place to visit in the winter. Amazing landscapes everywhare you look. Temperature was in the 60s (15 C). In the summer it gets up to
Flickr

When these minerals from the flood and rain waters are left over, they leave a clean sheen on the desert planes. These offer just another fun benefit of traveling in the desert terrain. While you likely won’t want to be in the desert when the rains come (flash floods are extremely dangerous), the lakes and aftermath that follow are well worth a view.