Death Valley National Park was closed Saturday after exceptional amounts of rain drenched the park on Friday, triggering flash floods that left about 1,000 visitors and park staff stranded.
The park received 1.46 inches of rainfall at the Furnace Creek area – just shy of the previous calendar day record of 1.47 inches, set on April 15, 1988. This amounts to about three-quarters of what the area typically receives in an average year, 1.94 inches, and is the greatest amount ever recorded in August, The lowest, driest and hottest location in the United States, Death Valley averages just 0.11 inches of rain in August.
As of Saturday morning, “everything is going well,” said Nikki Jones, a server assistant at a restaurant in the park’s Ranch Inn, who also lives there and posted a video of the flooding from her colleague on Twitter. Jones told the Washington Post that the floodwaters receded Friday afternoon, but light debris remain on the roads.
“CalTrans has done an amazing job to get it cleaned up as soon as possible,” she told the Post in a Twitter message. “I drove on the roads today.”
Jones said some people are stranded at the Inn at the Oasis because of trapped cars, “but people are able to get out of the park today.”
“The floodwaters pushed dumpster containers into parked cars, which caused cars to collide into one another,” the National Park Service said in a statement Friday. “Additionally, many facilities are flooded including hotel rooms and business offices.
The NPS did not immediately respond to the Post’s request for an update Saturday morning.
The torrent was triggered by the Southwest monsoon, which develops each summer as prevailing winds shift from out of the west to out of the south, drawing a surge of humidity northward. This moisture can fuel vigorous downpours that douse the parched desert landscape. Because there is little soil to soak up the rains, any measurable rains can cause flooding in low-lying areas, and heavier rains can collect into normally dry creeks, triggering flash floods.
This year’s Southwest monsoon has been particularly intense – which has helped relieve drought conditions in the region but also resulted in many significant flood events. Serious flooding has recently affected areas around Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The Death Valley flood also comes amid a series of extreme rain events over the Lower 48 states. Over the week spanning the end of July and beginning of August, three 1-in-1,000 year rain events occurred – inundating St. Louis, eastern Kentucky, and southeast Illinois. Earlier this summer, Yellowstone National Park also flooded.
Death Valley holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth, as well as several runners-up. Officially, Death Valley reached 134 degrees on July 10, 1913, but some climatologists have questioned the legitimacy of that reading. The next highest temperature on record, 131 degrees from Kebili, Tunisia, set July 7, 1931, is also controversial. Last summer and the summer before, Death Valley hit 130 degrees, which may be the highest pair of reliably measured temperatures on Earth if the 1931 Tunisia and 1913 Death Valley readings are disregarded.
The rainfall inundated the park, trapping vehicles in debris, according to a video tweeted by John Sirlin, an Arizona-based stormchaser. He wrote that roads were blocked by boulders and palm trees that had fallen, and that visitors struggled for six hours to leave the park.
Earlier this week, flash floods hit parts of western Nevada, forcing the closure of some roads leading to the park from Las Vegas. Flash floods also hit parts of northern Arizona.
Sirlin told the Associated Press that Friday’s rain started around 2 a.m. and was “more extreme than anything I’ve seen there.”
“There were at least two dozen cars that got smashed and stuck in there,” he said, adding that he saw washes flowing several feet deep although he did not see anyone injured, and the NPS reported no injuries as of Friday.
Last July, rare summer rains also soaked Death Valley, bringing 0.74 inches in a day at Furnace Creek approximately two weeks after the park set the world record for the hottest daily average temperature, at 118.1 degrees Fahrenheit.
Scientists say human-caused warming of the climate is intensifying extreme precipitation events. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found some evidence that rainfall from the Southwest monsoon has increased since the 1970s.
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