A Huge Lake Just Appeared in Death Valley

A lake also formed here back in 2005. NASA

Death Valley in California is known for being one of the hottest and driest places in the world. It's not somewhere you'd expect to suddenly stumble upon a giant new lake.

After a massive storm recently pummeled Southern California with record levels of rainfall, though, the once barren Badwater Basin was transformed into a virtual wetland. Death Valley's lowest point of elevation is now a temporary oasis; a 10-mile long lake has appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

It's a sight that's sure to make you rub your eyes and think twice about whether you've seen a mirage.

That's a bit how photographer Elliott McGucken reacted when he first descended into Badwater Basin, which is known to flood on occasion after heavy rainfall.

"It's a surreal feeling seeing so much water in the world's driest place," McGucken told SF Gate. "Nature presents this ephemeral beauty, and I think a lot of what photography is about is searching for it and then capturing it."

McGucken took full advantage of this serendipitous spectacle and captured some breathtaking images, which he posted to his Instagram account.

Because Badwater Basin sits at 282 feet below sea level, it's a natural tub for a lake to form in. It just rarely rains enough for that to happen; Death Valley only receives about two inches of rain per year. But on March 5th and 6th of this year, the park was showered with nearly an inch of rain — half the average annual amount in just two days.

One inch might not sound like a lot of rain, but in the dry desert that's a torrent, and it can accumulate fast.

"Because water is not readily absorbed in the desert environment, even moderate rainfall can cause flooding in Death Valley," explained Weather.com meteorologist Chris Dolce. "Flash flooding can happen even where it is not raining. Normally dry creeks or arroyos can become flooded due to rainfall upstream."

Still, this year's temporary lake is far bigger than usual. "It has formed before in smaller ponds, but I don't remember seeing it this large in this location before," said Patrick Taylor, chief of education at the park.

Like Death Valley's namesake ominously reminds us, however, this lake's existence is fleeting. It's already drying up fast and isn't likely to remain pooled into a single body of water for much longer than a week.

But in the lake's place will likely sprout a pretty spectacular wildflower bloom later this season. In Death Valley, where there's water, there's life to take advantage of every drop. It's a good bet that this year will bring some colorful vistas to this diverse desert.