Earth

Death Valley – driest spot in North America – has a new lake

A grayish mountain with a white cap reflected perfectly in water.
Here’s a look at the new lake in Death Valley National Park from February 12, 2024. It lies in a low spot called Badwater Basin. Death Valley is the driest spot in North America, though recent heavy rains have brought flooding. Image via NASA Earth Observatory/ K. Skilling/ National Park Service.

NASA Earth Observatory published this original story by Lindsey Doermann on February 16, 2024. Edits by EarthSky.

Death Valley has a new, ephemeral lake

An ephemeral lake in Death Valley National Park’s Badwater Basin is showing its staying power. Death Valley is the driest and hottest place in North America, and Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. The new lake at Badwater Basin formed in August 2023 in the aftermath of Hurricane Hilary. The lake gradually shrank but persisted throughout the fall and winter. And then a potent atmospheric river filled it back up in February 2024.

Death Valley typically receives about two inches (51 millimeters) of rain per year. However, in the past six months alone, more than double that (4.9 inches or 125 mm) fell at the national park’s official weather gauge at Furnace Creek. Two events were responsible for most of that precipitation. The remnants of Hurricane Hilary delivered 2.2 inches on August 20, 2023. And then an atmospheric river brought another 1.5 inches (38 mm) from February 4 to 7, 2024, according to park officials.

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The lake is showing its staying power

Following the August deluge, Death Valley National Park ranger Abby Wines said in a news release:

Most of us thought the lake would be gone by October. We were shocked to see it still here after almost six months.

And that was before the rains returned in February.

After the early February atmospheric river moved through, observers on the ground saw the lake continue to expand as water drained into the area. On February 11, park ranger Matthew Lamar noted:

The Amargosa River [which feeds the basin from the south] is really flowing, and we’ve noticed the water level continue to rise over the last couple of days as waters make their way to the basin.

Badwater Basin is endorheic, meaning that water flows into but not out of it. Typically, evaporation far outpaces inputs, rendering the lake ephemeral. But in the past six months, the influxes have changed the equation.

Tracking the lake from above

Three Death Valley images of a lake from satellite, showing very little light blue, to a darker and larger blue and a similar sized brighter blue.
These 3 images track the water levels in Badwater Basin at Death Valley National Park. The left image is before the deluge, on July 5, 2023. The middle image is from August 30, 2023, after Hurricane Hilary. And the right image is from February 14, 2024, after the recent atmospheric river. Image via NASA Earth Observatory/ OLI/ Wanmei Liang/ U.S. Geological Survey.

This series of images compares the desert basin before flooding (left) with its more-waterlogged state following each major storm. In both August 2023 (middle) and February 2024 (right), a shallow lake several kilometers across fills in the low-lying salt flat. The Operational Land Imager (OLI) sensor on Landsat 8 (left and right) and the OLI-2 on Landsat 9 (middle) took these false-color images.

Based on satellite imagery, the lake appears to have grown to a similar size in February 2024 as it did in August 2023, extending its months-long tenure. This comes as welcome news to visitors, who have enjoyed witnessing stunning reflections of the surrounding peaks in its calm waters.

As of February 14, the lake is one foot deep in places, according to park officials. And it’s uncertain how long it will last. Past appearances of the lake are rare and offer little insight into the current situation. When a lake formed in 2005, for example, it reportedly lasted about one week. It’s also too early to know how the precipitation will affect the wildflower season, which runs from late-February to mid-April, they said.

Death Valley before and after

Woman with long, dark hair jumping in front of a dry landscape. The ground looks white and cracked.
The salt flats in Badwater Basin there cover nearly 200 square miles (518 square km). They’re composed mostly of sodium chloride (table salt), along with calcite. Here is what they typically look like. Photo via FollowTiffsJourney.com. Thanks for the permission, Tiff!
Woman with long, dark hair standing over a watery surface. There are mountains in the background and an orange horizon, visible in both the sky and reflected in the water.
Can this be Death Valley? Death Valley National Park typically receives about 2 inches (5 cm) of rain per year. But the remnants of Hurricane Hilary delivered 2.2 inches (5.5 cm) of rain on August 20, 2023. And then an atmospheric river brought another 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) from February 4 to 7, 2024. This is what it looks like now (image from November 2023). Tiff of FollowTiffsJourney.com wrote an article titled Why You Need to Visit Death Valley Right Now. We couldn’t agree more! Thanks for the permission, Tiff!

Images of new lake in Death Valley

Bottom line: Heavy rains in August 2023 and again in February 2024 have created a new, ephemeral lake in Death Valley National Park, the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America.

Posted 
February 22, 2024
 in 
Earth

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