Even Death Valley, One of the World's Hottest and Driest Places, Can Have a Flash Flood

Linda Lam
Published: July 12, 2018

Death Valley, California, may be known for its intense heat, but flash flooding is another weather hazard here, and it happened Wednesday.

A very moist airmass in the Southwest and fueled the development of showers and thunderstorms that caused flash flooding in several desert locations, including Death Valley. Significant flash flooding is also a concern Thursday from Death Valley National Park into portions of Nevada and northwestern Arizona.

Death Valley holds the world record for the hottest surface temperature – 134 degrees  – which occurred on July 10, 1913. With an average of 2.36 inches of rainfall a year, it's also the driest place in North America.

(MORE: Death Valley's Legendary Extreme Heat)

Because water is not readily absorbed in the desert environment, even moderate rainfall can cause flash flooding here, and it can be destructive. 

Flash flood watches are shown in green and flash flood reports are indicated by the blue icons.

Flash flooding can result in areas even where it is not raining. Normally dry creeks or arroyos can become flooded due to rainfall upstream.

On Wednesday, flash flooding was reported along Badwater Road in Death Valley National Park around 3:30 p.m. which originated from Dante's View an hour and a half earlier. Dante's View is along the crest of the Black Mountains that overlook Death Valley.

Several other areas across the region, roads were impassable. In Arizona, north of Supai, campsites were washed away and campers were evacuated.

Palm Springs, California, also flooded Wednesday when 1.08 inches of rain fell in just two hours. That's more than its average rainfall all summer. A 63 mph wind gust was recorded at Palm Springs International Airport during the thunderstorm.

Death Valley Has Seen Impactful Flooding Before

Flash flooding and thunderstorms have been destructive in the fairly recent past in Death Valley.

On Sept. 11, 2017, a thunderstorm produced heavy rainfall and strong winds in Death Valley National Park. A roof was blown off a building and windows were blown out of four vehicles. The National Park Service estimated wind speeds of up to 100 mph.

One of the most notable flooding events took place over two weeks in October 2015. A series of slow-moving thunderstorms brought 1.3 inches of rainfall to Furnace Creek, the headquarters in the center of the park, making it the wettest October on record there. 

The area near Scotty's Castle reported over 3 inches of rain and hail in a five-hour period, resulting in the greatest flood event at mansion since it was built in the 1920s. Rain from previous days had already saturated the ground and exacerbated the flooding.

According to the park service, about 1,000 miles of roads were closed in the park due to the flooding. Water and power lines and several buildings were also damaged.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgfpPBOOyo0

On Aug. 15, 2004, torrential rain produced floodwaters up to 10 feet deep in portions of the park and miles of roads were washed out and closed for months. Two people were killed and the damage was estimated at $20 million.

Flash flooding in November 1987 stranded more than 5,000 people, according to the National Weather Service.

Just three years before that event, on Aug. 15-16, 1984, heavy rainfall and runoff from nearby mountains closed all roads but one in Death Valley. At least 37 cars wee stranded.

In February 1976, days of heavy rainfall and persistent runoff resulted in a significant flash flood in Golden Canyon, south of Furnace Creek. The paved road through Golden Canyon was wiped out and is no longer drivable.


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