Thursday, February 22, 2024

Echoes of a Watery Paradise in a Forsaken Hellscape - The Brief Return of Death Valley's Lake Manly

Imagine a lake that's six miles across flanked by dramatic mountain peaks reaching heights greater than 10,000 feet. We're in California, so it's got to be Lake Tahoe, right? But it's not. It is the lowest and driest place in North America, and the hottest place in the world. It's Death Valley. And big lakes are not a normal part of the scenery here. Badwater Basin is normally a dry salt flat. What has happened here?
In a word, it's rain. An extraordinary amount of rain has fallen in and around Death Valley this year, around 300% of what is normal. That sounds more dramatic than saying that 4.8 inches has occurred so far. A "normal" year to this point would see about 1.5 inches. And the rain did not fall in Death Valley alone. Death Valley is the lowest basin in a very large drainage system, and the surrounding landscape received even more. It was primarily the result of two events: the remnants of Hurricane Hilary in late August 2023 provided the floodwaters that resulted in the first iteration of the lake. In the hot months that followed, much of the accumulated water evaporated, but then the first week of February brought an atmospheric river storm to California that rejuvenated the shrinking lake. We were lucky to arrive a week later.

This kind of thing doesn't happen often. Some water was present on the valley floor in 2010, and earlier in 2005. But both of those years, floods had damaged the road to Dante's View so I haven't had a birds-eye view of the lake in at least three decades. It was fantastic.

When I and my students travel to Death Valley they get a packing list, but I tend not to put 'kayak' or 'raft' on that list. But we knew the lake would be there, so our long-term friend and trip volunteer Ryan actually packed one, so we had the spectacle of the Hollister family rafting Death Valley. 

The lake has been in the news, so we weren't surprised to see a multitude of tourists gathered in the parking lot at Badwater. I didn't think they'd all opt to go walking in the slimy muddy salty water, but you can see that they did. I was much happier to have stopped along the lake a mile to the south where there was no one but ourselves.

It was along that quiet shoreline that I was able to hear the echoes of a distant past when Death Valley was a watery paradise rather than the hellscape it is today (albeit a very beautiful and dramatic hellscape). That is what is revealed by the geological evidence scattered along the normally parched lake margins. 

At the south end of Death Valley there is an old basalt cinder cone with a strange name: Shoreline Butte. In the picture above, the shoreline terraces are highlighted by the "Superbloom" of 2016 (with all the rain this year, there is at least a possibility of another superbloom in a few weeks). Each of those horizontal terraces was carved by wave action. This and other clues scattered around the margins of the basin are evidence of a lake that existed here for thousands of years. It was as much as 600 feet deep, and more than 100 miles long. 

Where did all that water come from?

Along Beatty Cutoff Road, there is a beach berm covered by rounded flattened pebbles. This was along the northern shoreline of Lake Manly when it was 450 feet deep.
Evidence suggests that Lake Manly existed during a period from 186,000–120,000 years before present, dried up, and then returned again between about 35,000 to 10,000 years ago. It can't be a coincidence that these dates are identical to the dates established for the Tahoe and Tioga stage glaciations that took place in the Sierra Nevada. No glacier ever reached Death Valley, but the Sierra glaciers contributed vast amounts of meltwater to the dry basins east of the mountains. These waters filled present-day Mono Lake to overflowing. It spilled over and flowed in the Owens River to Owens Lake, which actually persisted into the modern era when LA water diversions caused it to dry up in the 1920s.

Pluvial lakes of Eastern California. Source: Philip Stoffer of the U.S. Geological Survey

Ice-age Owens Lake reached a depth of 300 feet and spilled over into China Lake, then Searles Lake, Panamint Lake, and finally Lake Manly in Death Valley. These ice-age bodies of water are called pluvial lakes. The cooler wetter conditions allowed two other river systems to contribute water, the Amargosa River out of Nevada, and the Mojave River out of the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. There may have even been a temporary connection with the Colorado River, which resulted in one of the most surprising aspects of Death Valley biology: fish!

Salt Creek Pupfish from the middle of Death Valley

Yes, there are fish in Death Valley! In fact, there are several species. They survive in widely scattered springs and short stretches of perennial streams that exist in the desert. The pupfish (cyprinodon) are of particular interest because they probably once were a single widespread species, but when isolated in springs that were either hot or cold, or salty or fresh, they were forced to evolve or perish. Today there are four species in the confines of the park and several others in outlying areas, especially the Owens Valley and Ash Meadows in Nevada. I've found their story to be intriguing and I've written about them a number of times. These diminutive fish survive in the saltiest and hottest water of any known fish species.

Mammoth bones on display at the Shoshone Museum, east of Death Valley

Imagining this vast ice-age lake meant led to another vision of past worlds. In the early 1980s, some students on a geology field trip were hanging out near their camp in the Shoshone area when they discovered bones sticking out of a gully wall. These bones proved to be specimens of Columbian Mammoths and other ice age mammal species (the specimens are currently on display in the Shoshone Museum east of the park). The Death Valley region was a much cooler and more verdant environment during the ice ages, and the shoreline of Lake Manly was populated by grazing animals including the aforementioned mammoths, camels, horses, bison, and the carnivores that would have preyed upon them, including the large cats and perhaps relatives to today's wolves and coyotes.

Looking at the shore of Lake Manly at Badwater from a vertical mile above from Dante's View
To see a lake that only comes into existence every decade or so is a spectacle (in the best sense). But to understand the deeper implications suggested by these lakes that speak of past worlds is the magic of geology. See it if you can. It won't last much longer!

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Discover the Wonders of the Hawaiian Islands with Geotripper and Modesto Junior College -May 30-June 11, 2024!

Are you looking for a bit of adventure? 

I invite you to join our Modesto Junior College Anthropology 190/Geology 190: Field Studies in the Hawaiian Islands from May 30 to June 11, 2024. This once-in-a-lifetime journey spans nine days on the Big Island of Hawai'i and four days on Kaua'i. 

There is still time to join us for 13 days exploring volcanoes, coral reefs, tropical rainforests, tropical deserts, ancient foot trails, petroglyphs, and archaeological sites! Our itinerary includes Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Mauna Kea, Hilo, the archaeological parks of the Kona Coast, and on Kauai we'll visit Waimea Canyon (the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific") and the Na Pali Cliffs, and much, much more.

The total cost for lodging, transportation, and inter-island flight is $2,850. Students are required to make their way to Hawaii and arrange their own meals. 

Contact instructor Garry Hayes (that's me) ( for more information.

This is a Zero-Textbook-Cost Class. We are writing our own!

Links for the Informational Brochure, Registration form, and the Tentative Itinerary can be found at the bottom of my MJC Faculty Page at MJC People Finder: Garry Hayes. Although some deadlines mentioned in the brochures have passed, we still have room for several more travelers, and would love to have you join us!