Climate Change

Driest place in North America has been home to a lake for 6 months, show NASA images

Badwater Basin in Death Valley received more than double its average annual precipitation since August 2023

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Wednesday 21 February 2024
Death Valley’s Badwater Basin from July 5, 2023 to February 14, 2024. Photos: NASA Earth Observatory

In the parched expanse of North America’s driest region, Badwater Basin, nestled within Death Valley, has defied expectations by lingering and expanding as an ephemeral lake. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Earth Observatory has documented this phenomenon through satellite imagery, capturing the basin’s transformation before and after extreme weather events.

Death Valley is well-known as the hottest place on Earth and the driest place in North America and is essentially a dry salt flat. 

Manly lake was formed in August 2023 after Hurricane Hilary. While the lake initially shrank as expected, it surprisingly persisted through the fall and winter months. Its resurgence came in February 2024, when a powerful atmospheric river replenished its waters.

Comparative images from NASA illustrate the basin’s evolution from a dry expanse to a temporary shallow lake following major storms in both August 2023 and February 2024. The lake now fills the low-lying salt flat, spanning several kilometres across. As of mid-February, the Manly lake remains, according to a statement by Death Valley National Park officials

Read more: Did Death Valley just hit the highest temperature recorded ever

Badwater Basin’s endorheic nature means water flows into it but not out, typically resulting in rapid evaporation and ephemeral lakes. However, increased precipitation over the past six months has disrupted this pattern.

Despite Death Valley’s average annual rainfall of only 51 millimetres, a remarkable 125 mm fell in the past half-year alone, primarily due to two significant weather events. The remnants of Hurricane Hilary deposited 55.88 mm precipitation on August 20, 2023, followed by an atmospheric river bringing another 38.1 mm from February 4-7, 2024.

At its largest, the lake was about 11 kilometres long, 6.5 km wide and about 60 centimetres deep. By late January, it shrunk to about half that size. However, more rainfall in February brought the level back to 30 cm in some places. 

Park ranger Abby Wines, in a press release, said many had expected it to disappear by October after the initial deluge, expressing surprise at the lake’s prolonged presence.

“We were shocked to see it still here after almost six months. This week’s rain will extend how long the lake is here. It’s too shallow to kayak in, but it makes amazing reflections of the mountains,” she said in the February 8, 2024 statement.

The lake at Badwater Basin is a rare occurrence and park officials say they do not know how long it will be there. It is possible, however, that it will last until late March.

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