Devastating rain in Death Valley and flooded casinos in Vegas mark a summer of extreme weather

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Photographer John Sirlin was in a canyon in the northeastern part of Death Valley National Park late Thursday to shoot lightning in an expected thunderstorm.

Then the lightning died down and the storm turned into an incessant downpour that lasted for hours, bringing near record-breaking rain in one of the hottest and driest places on Earth.

“It seemed serious,” said the 46-year-old from Chandler, Ariz., who also teaches storm chasing workshops. “It was a magnitude of flooding that I had never experienced before.”

More analysis will be needed to determine whether climate change contributed to the storm’s intensity. But its extreme nature matches what can be expected as global temperatures rise, experts said, drawing parallels to the historic floods that damaged Yellowstone National Park in June.

“We are already in a climate where there is a greater chance of intense precipitation,” said climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor and senior fellow at Stanford University. “And we have a clear understanding that as global warming continues, heavy precipitation events are likely to continue to intensify overall.”

The Furnace Creek Visitor Center recorded rainfall totaling 1.46 inches on Friday, surpassing the daily record of 1.10 inches set in 1936, but just below the park’s heaviest rainfall of 1.47 inches on 15 April 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 in 1911, according to the Western Regional Climate Center. Nearly 75% of that amount fell in a few hours on Friday.

Videos posted to social media showed roads turning into gushing rivers that uprooted trees, toppled boulders and flooded park facilities. Dumpsters drove into parked cars and cars collided with each other, the National Park Service said. At one point, officials said about 1,000 residents and visitors were trapped in the park due to rising water and debris.

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“Where it really got crazy was between 4 and 4:30,” Sirlin said. “We went from a little bit of water running through the pits 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.

“I knew from past monsoon-type floods that things can get crazy quickly, so I made the decision to move to higher elevations,” he said.

After sunrise, he started driving toward the eastern entrance to the park, stopping along the way to clear boulders and branches from the road. Sometimes he had to use flat rocks to build bridges over faded sections of the road, he said, estimating that the 35-mile journey would eventually take about six or seven hours.

“Different parts of the park flooded at different times. You could leave an area and another wash would run and you would have to wait 15 minutes,” he said.

By Saturday afternoon, most visitors had already left the park, National Park Service incident information specialist Jennette Jurado said. Law enforcement escorts helped them avoid multiple places where the road surface had been undercut, with asphalt overhanging unsupported areas at risk of collapsing, she said. US Navy and California Highway Patrol helicopters conducted aerial surveys to make sure there were no more stranded vehicles. No injuries were reported, but some roads sustained extensive damage.

“You can just make a blanket statement that rubble has been washed on every known road in the park,” Jurado said. “Sometimes the debris is light, just a few inches deep, and in other areas it’s feet deep.”

Summer storms in Death Valley tend to be more localized, closing off a road or two and possibly causing an alluvial fan to suddenly flood, said Jurado, calling Friday’s downpour “exceptionally rare.” The last time the park had 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 flood that destroyed historic buildings. Scotty’s Castle, a Spanish-style mansion that offered guided tours, was badly damaged and has since been closed to the public.

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“It seems like every time we get rain here in Death Valley, the rocks move. So that in itself was not a surprise,” Jurado said. “But that it’s so widespread and has so much rain is definitely a big deal for us.” More rain fell in this single storm than in any August in recorded park history, she added.

Although rainfall was higher than usual, such storms aren’t 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 monsoon moisture and an inverted trough moving across the southwest, providing energy.

“All the right ingredients came together,” he said.

Now that Earth has warmed 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, when factors known to cause intense storms align, their effects are more likely to be even more extreme, Diffenbaugh said.

“What we consistently see with climate change is that when the conditions that are commonly known to produce intense precipitation come together, the fact that there is more moisture in the atmosphere due to prolonged warming means those conditions are being prepared for more intense precipitation.” produce precipitation,” he said.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the same dynamic — often described as the atmosphere’s increasing thirst — is also contributing to the historic drought, more intense, more frequent heat waves and increasingly extreme wildfire behavior that has plagued the western United States.

“While it may seem paradoxical that we are getting extremely hot and dry and extremely wet in the region at the same time, it is very consistent with both the base climate dynamics of the region and the multiple ways in which global warming increases the likelihood of extreme events,” he said. he.

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Friday’s storm was the second time a flash flood hit Death Valley in a week, with some roads flooded during a storm on Sunday. Flash floods also washed away portions of the Mojave National Preserve, with most paved roads into the park remaining closed as of Saturday. And last Thursday, heavy monsoon rains saturated Las Vegas, pouring water into the casinos.

Death Valley officials said it would take time to assess the extent of damage across the park’s 3.4 million acres, including 1,000 miles of roads.

The Emergency Operations Center building and the Park Service staff residences suffered water damage, with some of them left without a water supply because the water pipes in Cow Creek had blown up in multiple locations, authorities said.

Highway 190, the park’s main east-west road, remained flooded in some areas and blocked by debris flows in others. About 20 palm trees had fallen into the lane at the Inn at Furnace Creek; The highway’s shoulder was destroyed and the asphalt damaged. California Department of Transportation crews worked around the clock to restore access and hoped to partially reopen the road Tuesday.

Numerous debris flows were reported elsewhere in the park, including over Badwater Basin Road and Artists Drive. Along other roads, stormwaters have removed strips of asphalt to be filled and new pavement, Jurado said.

“With some areas where the pavement has been completely removed, it will take some time to rebuild,” she said. “I can’t speculate if that’s weeks or months, but there will definitely be some lengthy repairs.”

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