Death Valley in California is famous for being one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. Not somewhere you would expect to find a lake then. But after a week of heavy rain, storms, and flooding, a rather large body of water has indeed appeared.
Luckily it has been caught on camera by a photographer who was initially aiming for Badwater Basin, which famously dips 86 meters (282 feet) below sea level at its lowest point (the lowest in the Americas), where he thought flood water may have gathered. Instead, road closures due to the heavy rain allowed him to stumble across this lake instead.
"It's a surreal feeling seeing so much water in the world's driest place," Elliot McGucken told SFGate. "There's an irony even though I couldn't get down to Badwater Basin. Overall, I think these shots are probably more unique."
Death Valley National Park holds the record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded on Earth – 56.7°C (134°F) – which occurred on July 10, 1913, at the aptly named Furnace Creek. It also holds the record for hottest ground temperature, a sizzling 93.9°C (201°F) on July 15, 1972, and the record for hottest month ever recorded with an average day and night temperature of 42.3°C (108.1°F) for July 2018 (which broke its own record set the previous July). It has a yearly average rainfall of 6 centimeters (2.36 inches) a year, making it one of the driest places on Earth too.
It may take a rare set of circumstances, but it’s not actually that surprising that bodies of water can form in a desert.
On average in March, Furnace Creek has 7.6 millimeters (0.3 inches) of rain. Last week it experienced 22 millimeters (0.87 inches) of rain in just 24 hours. The surrounding mountains recorded up to 38 millimeters (1.5 inches) of rain, which of course flows down into the desert. You don’t even need a lot of rain for a lake to emerge. When the ground is as dry as a desert it doesn’t easily absorb water, which means flash flooding can occur even when it’s not actually raining in the valley.
"The desert soils are dry and compact," National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Lericos told SFGate. "It's like putting water on concrete."
It’s not clear the exact size of the lake, but officials from the National Park Service emailed McGucken an estimate of 16 kilometers (10 miles) in length, just after the rains last week. The lake is still there, but it is getting smaller.
Despite its name, Death Valley is not devoid of life. Bighorn sheep, coyotes, kangaroo rats, jackrabbits, and tortoises have all made the arid land their home. Its unique landscape – a below sea level basin surrounded by mountains – means the tips of the peaks can experience snow while the landscape occasionally springs into vast fields of wildflowers, known as super blooms.
If you’re lucky, you can even spot a rainbow.