The notoriously dry Death Valley National Park has been hit by a torrential downpour, triggering flash floods that left around 1,000 people stranded. Some 500 visitors and 500 park staff at the California hotspot couldn't exit the area due to extensive damage to roads and other critical infrastructure, according to the National Park Service (NPS).
“Death Valley is an incredible place of extremes,” said park superintendent Mike Reynolds in a statement. “It is the hottest place in the world, and the driest place in North America.”
“This week’s 1,000-year flood is another example of this extreme environment. With climate change models predicting more frequent and more intense storms, this is a place where you can see climate change in action!”
While the park does experience annual monsoons, the total average rainfall in Death Valley does not exceed 5.6 centimeters (2.2 inches). This yearly figure was almost reached in just three hours on Friday, August 6, when 3.70 centimeters (1.46 inches) of rain fell on Furnace Creek.
The downpour was just a whisker away from breaking the park’s all-time daily rainfall record of 3.73 centimeters (1.47 inches), set in 1988. Flooding of this intensity has not been seen in Death Valley since 2004, when two people were killed after their vehicle was swept away by the torrent.
Fortunately, no injuries have been reported this time around so far, and the NPS says that “people who were previously sheltering in place have been able to carefully travel out through the damaged roadways.” However, parts of the park remain inaccessible due to debris on the roads and asphalt damage, while around 60 vehicles are reported to have become trapped near Furnace Creek.
A portion of the Cow Creek water system – which serves many park residents and facilities – has been shut down by the floods, which have washed out around 183 meters (600 feet) of the water main. Hotel rooms and local businesses have been invaded by floodwaters, and many facilities across Death Valley are now offline.
Around 86 meters (282 feet) below sea level and flanked by steep mountains, Death Valley is famous for the extreme summer temperatures that arise due to its unique geographic features. Furnace Creek’s record air temperature of 56.7 degrees Celsius (134 Fahrenheit), set in July 1913, remains the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere on Earth.
Though meteorologists have described the recent floods as a “1,000-year” event, this does not necessarily mean that floods of this magnitude occur once in a millennium. Rather, it simply means that there is a one-in-a-thousand chance of such extreme weather in any given year.
All roads in the Death Valley National Park are currently closed as a result of the recent floods, and the NPS has warned visitors and residents not to attempt driving through floodwaters. It is not yet clear when roads or local facilities will re-open.