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Water Wonder: Ice Age-Era Lake Reemerges from Dusty Depths of California's Arid Death Valley

Ancient Lake Reappears in Death Valley, Creating Rare Sight
Source: The National Park Service

An ancient lake has reappeared in the hot, dry landscape of California's Death Valley, creating a rare and fleeting spectacle for visitors.

Jan. 31 2024, Published 3:03 p.m. ET

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In the arid landscape of California's Death Valley, a remarkable natural phenomenon has unfolded as an ancient lake re-emerges, captivating visitors with its transient beauty.

This newfound body of water is a vestige of the expansive Lake Manly, which originated during the Ice Age.

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Lake Manly, with a depth of 600 feet, played a pivotal role in shaping the lowest point in North America, the Badwater Basin, situated 282 feet below sea level, according to information from The National Park Service.

Typically, tourists exploring this popular destination encounter vast salt flats stretching across a desolate expanse. However, unprecedented levels of rainfall during the previous summer transformed the landscape, resulting in the creation of a lake that has defied expectations, persisting well into 2024.

Park ranger Abby Wines expressed surprise at the lake's longevity, stating to ABC News recently, "We didn't think it would be here anywhere near this long. But if you were worried you might have missed it, you're not too late. Come out here soon."

The genesis of this extraordinary water feature can be traced back to August 2023 when Hurricane Hilary unleashed a torrential downpour, prompting the closure of the park for nearly two months. Upon reopening in October 2023, visitors were greeted by an unusual spectacle: a sprawling, shallow lake.

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The National Park Service's Death Valley webpage recently noted, As recently as mid-January, the temporary shallow lake at Badwater was present. "Although it is only a few inches deep, it is very beautiful," the Park Service said. "This is a rare event; we don't know how long the lake will be there."

Wines described the lake, which extends across several miles, as creating "otherworldly" views, reflecting the surrounding mountains. However, the harsh, dry climate is causing a gradual shrinkage of the lake.

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The last instance of the basin filling with water was in 2005, and it took a week to evaporate, according to Wines. Evaporation rates in the region outpace the rate of rainfall, as highlighted by a NASA Earth Observatory article.

Hurricane Hilary, causing unprecedented weather patterns, led to the first-ever tropical storm watch in California's history. On August 20, 2023, Death Valley received 2.2 inches of rain, surpassing the total annual rainfall average of 2.15 inches and breaking the previous single-day record of 1.7 inches, according to the National Park Service.

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This also marked the wettest August day on record for downtown Los Angeles and San Diego, as reported by the National Weather Service.

In November, visitors to Death Valley reported seeing extraordinary sights such as flowing springs, bighorn sheep grazing on new greenery and even wildflowers blooming — a rarity outside of springtime, according to the NASA Earth Observatory article.

Lake Manly's origin dates back 15,000 years when melting glaciers in the Nevada mountains led to water collecting in the basin. Over time, the changing climate transformed the area into one of the most inhospitable desert valleys on the planet, as documented by the National Park Service.

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