The Death Valley National Park near the border between California and Nevada experienced unprecedented rainfall this month and two major floods last week. The area, typically dry and known as the driest place in the United States, remains the record-holder for the highest temperature ever observed on Earth (49°C in 1913).
“Climate change in action”
The first flood, on August 1, also hit the neighboring state of Arizona, forcing local authorities to close roads that were overwhelmed with mud and debris as well as to evacuate parts of the Joshua Tree National Park nearby.
The second, significantly worse, took place on August 5 and was preceded by “nearly an entire year’s worth of rain in one morning,” according to the NASA Earth observatory. In just three hours, the area saw 75% of the rainfall it normally gets in an entire year.
While this fell just one inch short of breaking the daily rainfall record in the park, the amount of rain that fell that single day, NASA’s observatory points out, broke the record for the most rainfall ever recorded in the park for the entire month of August.
Since we began keeping track in 1911, only one day saw more rainfall in the Death Valley than August 5. That record, however, was set in the month of April (in 1988) and was now almost broken in August, the month of the year that normally sees the least rainfall.
Historic rainfall in Death Valley today. Since records started in 1911, this is the second wettest day on record. The wettest day was only slightly higher with 1.47" falling in April 1988. #DeathValley #DeathValleyFlooding pic.twitter.com/MBcC558zk7
— Sam Argier (@SamArgier) August 6, 2022
According to Las Vegas National Weather Service meteorologist Daniel Berc, the flood on Friday was a historic event that would happen once in every 1,000 years.
Climate journalist Colin McCarthy writes that this is the fourth such, once-in-1,000-year rainfall event across the US in less than two weeks.
Death Valley, the hottest and driest place in the US just saw the 4th 1-in-1,000 year rain event in less than 2 weeks in the US.
3/4 of Death Valley’s annual rainfall fell in 3 hours. pic.twitter.com/0DK6HNNZTq
— Colin McCarthy (@US_Stormwatch) August 9, 2022
August 5 flooding
As the rain poured over the park at unprecedented levels for this time of the year, the flooding swamped the roads with debris, damaging buildings, vehicles and facilities.
“Flood waters pushed dumpster containers into parked cars, which caused cars to collide into one another,” park authorities wrote in a statement, adding that many facilities were flooded, including hotel rooms and business offices.
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The flood also damaged and shut down a key water system, burying about 60 cars in debris and leaving around 500 visitors and another 500 park employees stranded; so far, no injuries have been reported.
Photographer John Sirlin, a regular park visitor who lives in Arizona and who has been following storms in the US since the 1990s, documented some of the flooding in the Death Valley on Friday morning:
Highway 190 and Badwater Rd junction. Whole palm trees from the hotel were washing over the road. pic.twitter.com/44I5nf9dGy
— John Sirlin (@SirlinJohn) August 5, 2022
Sirlin describes the flooding as more extreme than anything he’s seen there, stressing that it took him almost six hours to cross 56 kilometers to get out of the park.
“I’ve never seen it to the point where entire trees and boulders were washing down. The noise from some of the rocks coming down the mountain was just incredible,” the photographer said on Friday.
NASA also documented the flooding, capturing the floodwater as it colored in blue areas that are otherwise brown:
As the Death Valley National Park superintendent Mike Reynolds highlighted, “[t]his 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.”
Indeed, the American West, which until recently has largely been spared from the most devastating consequences of climate change, is increasingly becoming a climate crisis hotspot. The Colorado River Basin, for instance, is losing water at record speeds and is now threatened with extinction.
While the floodwater in the Death Valley has retreated since Friday, extreme weather events like droughts and floods are on course to get worse, globally and across America. The more time passes and the more extreme the crisis becomes, the more scientific evidence there is proving that human activities on Earth are both causing and exacerbating the crisis, making extreme weather events more intense, more likely, and more frequent.
As with most crises we have created so far, we know what is causing them as well as what we need to do to end them. In the case of this particular crisis, the only way to truly reverse the trend is to stop heating the planet as much as we — which, fortunately for us all, is not yet impossible.