Photographer John Sirlin was in a canyon in the northeast part of Death Valley National Park on Thursday night shooting lightning in an expected thunderstorm.
Then the lightning died down and the storm became an uninterrupted torrential downpour that lasted for hours, bringing near-record rainfall to one of the hottest and driest places on earth.
“It sounded serious,” said the 46-year-old from Chandler, Arizona, who also runs storm chasing workshops. “It was a flood of a magnitude I had never experienced before.”
Further analysis will be needed to determine if climate change has contributed to the intensity of the storm. But its extreme nature is consistent with what can be expected as global temperatures rise, experts said, drawing parallels with the historic flood that damaged Yellowstone National Park in June.
“We are already in a climate where the risk of intense precipitation events is high,” said climatologist Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor and principal investigator at Stanford University. “And we clearly understand that as global warming continues, heavy rainfall is likely to continue to intensify overall.”
Rainfall totaling 1.46 inches was recorded at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center Friday, surpassing the Aug. 5 record of 1.10 inches set in 1936, but just short of the park’s highest rainfall of 1.47 inches on April 15, 1988, said Brian Planz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Las. Vegas.
Death Valley has averaged about 1.96 inches of precipitation per year since record keeping began in 1911, according the Western Regional Climate Center. Nearly 75% of that amount fell in the space of a few hours on Friday.
Videos posted on social media showed roads transformed into rushing rivers that uprooted trees, toppled boulders and flooded park facilities. Dumpsters drove into parked cars and the cars collided with each other, the National Park Service said. At one point, about 1,000 residents and visitors were trapped in the park due to rising water and debris, officials said.
“Where it really got crazy was between 4 and 4:30 p.m.,” Sirlin said. “We went from a little bit of water running through dips and washes, water a few inches deep, to suddenly you could hear the sound of rocks and boulders.”
Traveling with his corgi, Aspen, he drove to Badwater Road off Highway 190 and waited in his car there.
“I knew after experiencing past monsoon-type floods that things could get crazy in a hurry, so I made the decision to go to higher ground,” he said.
After sunrise, he started driving towards the east entrance of the park, stopping to move rocks and branches off the road. At times he had to use flat rocks to build bridges over washed-out sections of the road, he said, and estimated the 35-mile journey ended up taking around six or seven hours.
“Different areas of the park flooded at different times. You could clear an area and another wash would be in progress and you would have to wait 15 minutes,” he said.
By Saturday afternoon, most visitors had been able to leave the park, said National Park Service incident information specialist Jennette Jurado. Law enforcement escorts helped them avoid several places where the pavement was undermined, with asphalt hanging over unsupported areas at risk of collapse, she said. US Navy and California Highway Patrol helicopters were conducting an aerial search to make sure there were no more stuck vehicles. No injuries were reported, but some roads suffered extensive damage.
“You can just make a general statement that every known road in the park is covered in debris,” Jurado said. “Sometimes the debris is light, only a few centimeters deep, and in other areas it’s feet deep.”
Summer storms in Death Valley are typically more localized, shutting down a road or two and possibly causing a flash flood from an alluvial fan, Jurado said, calling Friday’s downpour “exceptionally rare.” The last time the park saw such widespread rain was in 2015, when a powerful weather system dropped nearly 3 inches of rain in five hours, triggering a 1,000-year-old flood that hit historic structures. Scotty’s Castle, a Spanish-style mansion that offered guided tours, was badly damaged and has since been closed to the public.
“It seems like every time it rains here in Death Valley, the rocks move. So that wasn’t a surprise per se,” Jurado said. “But the fact that it’s so widespread and having that much rain volume is definitely a big deal for us.” More rain fell in that one storm than in any August in the park’s recorded history, she added.
Although precipitation was above normal, such storms are not atypical for Death Valley at this time of year, when monsoons often bring moisture from Mexico, Planz said. He attributed the storm to a combination of monsoonal moisture and an inverted trough crossing the southwest which provided energy.
“All the right ingredients were there,” he said.
Now that the Earth has warmed 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, chances are high that when the factors known to produce intense storms align, their effects will be even more extreme, Diffenbaugh said.
“What we constantly see with climate change is that when the conditions that are well known to produce intense precipitation come together, the fact that there is more moisture in the atmosphere as a result of long-term warming means these conditions are primed to produce more intense precipitation,” he said.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, he said, the same dynamics – often described as the atmosphere’s growing thirst – also contribute to historic droughtmore intense and frequent heat waves And more and more extreme wildfire behavior that have beset the western United States.
“While it may seem counterintuitive that we are both extremely hot and dry and extremely humid in the region simultaneously, this is highly consistent with both the basic climate dynamics of the region and the myriad ways in which warming climate increases the risk of extreme events,” he said.
Friday’s storm marked the second time flash flooding has hit Death Valley in a week, with some roads inundated in a storm on Sunday. Flash floods too washed out parts of the Mojave National Preserve, with most paved roads leading to the park remaining closed as of Saturday. And at the end of last month, heavy monsoon rains saturated Las Vegascascading water into the casinos.
Death Valley officials said it would take time to assess the extent of the damage to the park’s 3.4 million acres, which include 1,000 miles of roads.
The Park Service Emergency Operations Center building and staff residences suffered water damage, and some of them were left without water service because the Cow Creek water lines were blown up in several places, authorities said.
Highway 190, the main east-west road through the park, remained flooded in some places and blocked by debris flows in others. About twenty palm trees had fallen on the roadway near the Furnace Creek Inn; the shoulder of the highway was destroyed and its asphalt damaged. California Department of Transportation crews were working around the clock to restore access and hoped to be able to partially reopen the road by Tuesday.
Numerous debris flows were reported elsewhere in the park, including on Badwater Basin Road and Artists Drive. Along other roads, stormwater has removed strips of asphalt that will require filling and new pavement, Jurado said.
“With some areas where the causeway has been completely removed, reconstruction will take some time,” she said. “I can’t speculate on weeks or months, but there will definitely be long-term repairs.”