May 30, 2024

Taylor Daily Press

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There is now a lake in one of the driest places on Earth

There is now a lake in one of the driest places on Earth

Death Valley – the driest place in North America – has had a real lake since the end of last year. This lake is also moving, as satellite images show.

Death Valley, California, is not known for its beautiful water features. It is the driest place in North America and one of the driest places on Earth. Usually only 50 mm of rain falls annually. For comparison: here in the Netherlands we receive about 850 mm of rain per year.

But recently it has become relatively humid in Death Valley. In the past six months, 125 mm of water has fallen, and a fair amount of water has also been brought in from the surrounding mountains. It's the result of several storms — including Tropical Storm Hillary — moving across California, delivering record amounts of rain. These large amounts of rainfall lead to a somewhat unique phenomenon in Death Valley: the creation of a veritable lake. Until recently, this made it possible to briefly kayak in some of the driest places in the United States!

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The lake formed in the Badwater Basin and is informally referred to as Lake Manly. The temporary lake also attracted the attention of scientists. They soon wondered how big and deep the lake was and how it would evolve over time. To find out, they sought help from SWOT (see box).

SWOT Satellite
SWOT stands for Surface Water and Ocean Topography. The name refers to a satellite launched in December 2022. The satellite is supposed to determine and monitor the water level in oceans, rivers and lakes. Ultimately, the researchers hope to gain more knowledge about the impact of global warming on our water. By examining where water is located – where it comes from and where it goes – scientists also hope they can more accurately predict which areas may experience drought or flooding.

Now researchers have also used a SWOT analysis to look at the temporary lake in Death Valley. “This is a really great example of how SWOT can monitor how multiple unique systems work,” said researcher Tamlin Pavelski. Satellite observations – conducted in February and March – revealed that the depth of the lake ranged from 1 to 0.5 metres. At its peak—shortly after the storms hit California—it was about 6 miles (10 km) long and up to 3 miles (5 km) wide.

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Because the lake is so shallow, it can move quite easily, according to satellite images. For example, strong winds at the end of February easily pushed water several kilometers away.

This picture shows how the lake moves. The colors also show their depth. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Since there is usually little water in Death Valley – let alone lakes – no instruments have been installed there to monitor the water. But thanks to the SWOT satellite, that didn't stop researchers from studying the lake that formed in Death Valley late last year. According to the researchers, it shows the great added value of the satellite.

Naturally, the lake cannot survive in one of the driest places on Earth, and is doomed to disappear again. It is unclear when the lake will disappear completely. However, the water level is already falling. Because it is no longer possible to reach the lake without leaving extensive tracks in the mud, sailing on the temporary lake has also become prohibited. The remaining traces in the mud remain visible until a lake is formed again, as stated on the site National Park Service To read. Since it may be a while before the driest place in North America can store that much water again, the organization wants to keep the bottom of the Badwater Basin as clean as possible. Sailing is no longer possible, but beautiful reflections of the mountains surrounding Badwater Basin can still be seen in the water. This is unique.