It’s one of the driest places in the world. A spot so devoid of moisture that if measured rainfall filled your coffee mug over the course of a year, it would be remembered for decades.
Yet, in an instant, Mother Nature can change her mind. And what seems so permanent to a man is wiped away with the ease of lead to eraser.
In October more rain fell on Death Valley National Park than any person had ever witnessed. Much of it coming in the flash of a monsoonal thunderstorm so common to other deserts of the American Southwest, but not to this one.
The LA Times has a gallery that is both heartbreaking and awesome showing the destruction after the October storm dropped three inches of rain in five hours. Death Valley typically sees four inches in an entire YEAR.
This quote from Death Valley District Ranger Paul Forward paints an otherworldly picture:
“It started with heavy hail,” he recalled. “Three hours later, the dry wash was transformed into floodwaters 100 feet wide with 20-foot waves. The air was filled with the sounds of massive boulders grinding against each other as they rolled down the canyon.”
According to the article one of the washes (desert speak for dry creek) saw the floodwaters flow at 93,000 cubic feet per second. To put that in perspective, the Colorado River flows at a max 25,000 cubic feet per second through the Grand Canyon. And before the river was dammed up it would flow at about 100,000 cubic feet per second at the peak of each high water season. This means the floodwaters that pushed through Death Valley last month were the equivalent to that which carved out the biggest canyon in the world.
Gizmodo has an interesting slider from USGS showing the difference in visible moisture at the park between this year and last year. This could just the beginning as we stumble forward into what may be the largest El Nino in history.
I’ve been to Death Valley a few times. It’s a place I love for it’s beauty and isolation. But, most of all I love it because it makes me feel dreadfully small and insignificant. The scale of time is bluntly apparent. The spaces are vast during the day, and the stars infinite at night. It’s a gigantic national park of a reminder that as large as our ego may swell it’s still but a pinprick on the face of the planet. Much less the universe. And remarkably our collective actions are radically changing this and other landscapes.
Neatly said: it’s a place of perspective. It’s what I sought when I packed up my life to head west so many years ago.
Once I was lucky enough to pass through during what would typically be considered a wet spell at the park. The pools in Badwater Basin were more expansive than usual. The salt flats were mushy instead of crunchy. That, according to a park ranger at the time, was remarkable.
This was when I worked with Contiki and I’d spend much of the offseason camping around the Southwest. In this case I was on a month-long grand circuit of Nevada, California and Arizona. I thought I was lucky to see Badwater with as much water as was there…and then I saw them. Leaving Lake Meade it was like the end of Field of Dreams, but instead of headlights the cars were wearing kayaks.
Just a few days after pulling up the stakes in Death Valley they had been hit with an even bigger stretch of rain. Something that would fill Badwater Basin with enough water to allow for kayaking. Had I been smart I would have doubled back up 15 past Vegas and to the park. I had other pressing matters that kept me from kayaking in Death Valley…it’s OK, it’s not like I missed a once-in-a-decade wildflower bloom after that (I did).