Desert oasis: Hottest, driest place in the US sees a 10-mile-long lake suddenly appear

By Brian Lada, AccuWeather meteorologist and staff writer
March 18, 2019, 8:23:09 AM EDT


The driest and hottest spot in the United States turned into a lake earlier this month after heavy rain flooded Death Valley National Park.

The most well-known part of Death Valley in California is the barren valley floor that sits below sea level, but torrential rainfall on March 6 caused a large pool of water to gather that park rangers estimate was around 10 miles wide.

“It was breathtaking! In between shooting photographs, we always steal a few seconds for ourselves and take some deep breaths out there, allowing the scene to wash over us in all its ephemeral beauty,” Elliot McGucken told AccuWeather over the phone.

McGucken is a professional photographer who was in Death Valley the day after the flooding rain and documented the rare phenomenon.

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)


McGucken was in the right place at the right time to photograph the temporary desert oasis, but this was no accident. The Los Angeles-based photographer was planning to be in the park when heavy rain was in the forecast.

“I kept planning and canceling [trips to Death Valley], but I know that as time goes on you get less and less chance for rain as you get into summer, so I figured I better go now, so I did. I was really lucky,” McGucken told AccuWeather.

“I was just hoping to see some water down in Badwater Basin. It was in a totally different place than what I was [originally] thinking,” McGucken said.

On Wednesday, March 6, Death Valley measured 0.87 of an inch of rain. While this may not sound significant, this total accounts for more than 30 percent of the park’s average yearly rainfall of 2.36 inches.

Since the ground in Death Valley is hard-packed, the water isn’t absorbed into the ground too easily, so floodwater just settle on the valley floor and sit there until it evaporates. Sometimes this process can take days.

Some roads in the park were also closed after flooding left behind sediment and debris across roadways.

McGucken said that the lake was only around 6 inches deep in the spots he ventured out to, but he estimates that it could have been several feet deep in some areas.

“There isn't really an official name for it, and the size all depends on how much rain we got and how long it has been since that rain,” Death Valley Park Ranger Patrick Taylor said.

RELATED:
Photos: Stunning 'super bloom' of wildflowers paints Southern California deserts yellow and purple
The 25 best campgrounds at America’s National Parks
Barren desert 'fairy circles' caused by … rain?

This phenomenon does not happen often, and not many people were in the park to see the short-lived lake firsthand.

“It was kind of weird that I was the only one there. Part of it might have been because it was kind of far from the road, so it might have been too far away for people to bother. It was also a Thursday in March, so there’s not many winter vacationers there,” McGucken said.

“You go to places like Yosemite, you’re at the big scene during winter storms and you’re definitely not alone there; there are tons of people. But this was every bit as significant, so it’s kind of strange when you’re standing all alone and you’re thinking ‘Am I doing this right?’ There are points that you’re standing still and you’re sinking in the mud and you’re asking yourself ‘Is there a reason why people aren’t out here?’”

Death Valley is also usually windy during the day, but the winds diminished and remained calm long enough for the lake to look like a sheet of glass, allowing McGucken to capture incredible reflections of the mountains in the distance.

Death Valley Pano

(Photo/Elliot McGucken)


There are accounts of this lake forming following heavy rain in the past. One of the most prominent occurrences was in October 2015 when several rainstorms hit the park. In the span of two weeks, the park measured 1.3 inches of rain, nearly 2,000 percent above the normal rainfall in October.

The flooding that month also caused major road damage across the park with some roads still in the process of being repaired to this day.

kayaking Death Valley

Kayakers enjoying the temporary lake that formed in Death Valley National Park. (Photo/NPS)


Death Valley is known for its extreme heat and holds the global record for the highest air temperature ever recorded, a sizzling 134 degrees Fahrenheit recorded in July 1913. And in July 2018, Death Valley set the world record for the hottest month ever, according to The World Meteorological Organization, with an average temperature of 108.1 F, beating out the monthly world record it set the previous July with an average temperature of 107.3 F.

However, the winter months there are much cooler with rain occasionally falling as winter storms track across California.

On the day when the rain that spawned the temporary lake fell, the high temperature was only 72 F. The following day when McGucken captured the breathtaking images of the 10-mile-wide lake, the high temperature in the park peaked in the mid-80s.

The lake has since dissipated and may not reappear until next winter, or potentially longer. California had an unusually wet winter, with a parade of rain and snowstorms in higher elevations dumping enough precipitation on the Golden State to officially lift it out of a drought for the first time in eight years, scientists announced this week.


Questions or comments? Email Brian Lada at Brian.Lada@accuweather.com and be sure to follow him on Twitter!


Report a Typo

Comments

Comments that don't add to the conversation may be automatically or manually removed by Facebook or AccuWeather. Profanity, personal attacks, and spam will not be tolerated.

More Weather News