Heavy Rains Cause Extremely Rare 1,000-Year Event In Death Valley

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Flood damage at Mud Canyon Road in Death Valley National ParkPhoto credit: NPS

A historic amount of rain fell in Death Valley National Park last Friday and the result was disastrous.

In just 3 hours, 1.46 inches of rain fell on Friday at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, according to the National Park Service. The rain total, which was just shy of the all-time record high of 1.47 inches of rain, caused flash flooding that resulted in widespread damage and led to the National Park Service closing all of the park’s roads.

“The heavy rain that caused the devastating flooding at Death Valley was an extremely rare, 1,000-year event,” Daniel Berc, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Las Vegas, said. “A 1,000-year event doesn’t mean it happens once per 1,000 years. It means there is a 0.1 percent chance of it occurring in any given year.”

Among the damage noted so far is that the Cow Creek water system providing water for park buildings and residences was “catastrophically” damaged, miles of roads within the park were damaged and are now closed, and while no one was injured, 1,000 people were temporarily stranded.

“Death Valley is an incredible place of extremes,” Park Superintendent Mike Reynolds said. “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!”

The rain and resulting flooding on Friday come after significant flooding earlier last week that damaged roads and caused numerous road closures. The 1,000-year rain and subsequent flash flooding compound the situation.

A Study In Extremes

Death Valley National Park, which is a 2-hour drive from Las Vegas, is the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the U.S. In the summer months of May to September, temperatures average over 100 degrees — and often exceed 120 degrees. What’s more, the official highest recorded temperature in the world was 134 degrees in Death Valley on July 10, 1913.

That summer heat isn’t unusual, either. In July 2018, daytime highs reached a temperature of 127 degrees for 4 days in a row.

Those summer temperatures are a result of Death Valley’s geography. The valley is a long, narrow basin sitting at 282 feet below sea level. It also is surrounded by high, steep mountains. Consequently, air over the valley warms in the sunlight and continues heating as it descends to the valley floor. The clear, dry air and relative lack of plant cover allow sunlight to heat the valley floor, which further heats the air.

Flash flooding from Southwest monsoon rains every August is a natural part of Death Valley’s ecology. Here’s why the flooding occurs: There is little soil to soak up water, so measurable rain can lead to flooding in low-lying areas. On the other hand, water from heavy rains makes its way into normally dry creeks, triggering flash floods.

The 1.46 inches of rain at Furnace Creek last Friday was just short of the previous daily record of 1.47 inches, which was measured in 1988, park spokesperson Amy Wines said, according to Reuters.

To put the recent rainfall in perspective, Death Valley typically receives 1.94 inches of rain per year, according to the Washington Post. Of that, just 0.11 inches of rain falls in August, on average.

The Recent Rain’s Aftermath

The rain last Friday created flooding that pushed trash dumpsters into parked cars, shoved parked cars into each other, and even flooded buildings. It also led to about 500 visitors and 500 park staff being stranded, Reuters reports.

John Sirlin, a park visitor, posted on Twitter that the park’s roads were blocked by boulders and fallen trees.

Nikki Jones, who works at the park’s Ranch Inn, also posted a video of the flooding taken by a colleague on Twitter.

The floodwaters began to recede later on Friday, and by Saturday, “everything was going well,” Jones told the Washington Post. While some people were stranded at the inn because their cars were trapped, other people were able to get out of the park on Saturday.

Know Before You Go

Death Valley is “currently experiencing stormy weather, which is making many roads in the park impassable due to flooding and debris, the National Park Service explains. Consequently, all roads in the park are closed.

If you plan to visit Death Valley when the roads are opened once again, be sure to keep several safety tips in mind.

First, the National Park Service recommends visitors drink a minimum of one gallon of water per day to replace loss from sweat. More water will be needed if you are active. Since electrolyte levels must be balanced, the National Park Service advises visitors to also eat salty foods and drink sports drinks.

Secondly, and equally important, visitors should avoid hiking in the heat. Instead, visitors should hike in the (relatively) cooler morning hours and be sure strenuous activity such as hiking is completed before 10 a.m., the National Park Service recommends.

You can monitor the current conditions at Death Valley as well as learn how to plan a trip to visit the park here.

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