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Tall flowers, dead shrubs, ephemeral lake: Death Valley has become a picture of climate whiplash

After ping-ponging between severe drought and record rainfall, the famed California desert is offering up strange scenes.
Wildflowers bloom in Panamint Springs in Death Valley National Park on Nov. 10, 2023.
Wildflowers bloom in Panamint Springs in Death Valley National Park on Nov. 10, 2023. Kyle Grillot / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In California’s boom-and-bust climate, Death Valley has offered some of the strangest scenes over the past few years. 

Some of the area’s perennial creosote bushes died back during a severe drought that hampered the region through 2022. Then torrential downpours — from the remnants of Hurricane Hilary and subsequent storms — revived annual wildflowers from seed over the last year. 

During the winter, extreme rainfall resurrected an ancient lake that is now disappearing once again.

Together, these extremes have created bizarre juxtapositions in the famed desert.

“I could take you to a field of dead creosote bushes with nice wildflowers springing up in between,” said Patrick Donnelly, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “For a plant, it’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland — everything is dead — then spring comes and flowers are sprouting between the corpses.”

People wade through water at Badwater Basin on Feb. 22, 2024, in Death Valley National Park, Calif.
People wade through water at Badwater Basin on Feb. 22 in Death Valley National Park, Calif. John Locher / AP file

Climate scientists have long predicted that global warming would both aggravate droughts in California’s inland deserts and also intensify bouts of rainfall. Death Valley locals say they’re watching that dynamic play out in real time. How desert plants, animals and local economies adapt to the changes in an environment that’s already one of the most extreme on Earth will determine the future of this symbol of resilience. 

“It’s interesting to have a front row seat,” Donnelly said. “This is the signature of climate chaos.” 

A 1-in-1,000-year storm — twice 

Susan Sorrells, who owns the ecotourism town of Shoshone, which is near Death Valley National Park, said the area’s weather is “always a roller coaster ride.” 

But that has been especially true over the last couple of years. In early 2022, Death Valley, like the rest of the American Southwest, remained mired in the driest period since the year 800. During the 22-year drought, soil moisture reached an all-time low. Plants were withering, including the creosote bush, which is known to live for thousands of years, thanks to deep roots that search for water and can survive on very little.

Its dieback during drought, then, was evidence of the weather’s severity.

“Desert shrubs are really tough and slow to die,” said Lynn Sweet, a research ecologist at the University of California Riverside. “But at some point, there is mortality.” 

Then, in August of that year, a deluge arrived. 

In several hours, Death Valley National Park received a record 1.7 inches of rain — about three-quarters of its typical annual total. The 1-in-1,000 year storm, as weather forecasters would later call it, washed out park roads, moved boulders and trapped cars in debris. 

About a year later, remnants of Hurricane Hilary, a rare Pacific hurricane, dumped 2.2 inches of rain on the park — exceeding its typical annual rainfall in one day and setting a new 24-hour record.

“To have the worst drought in recorded history and the most precipitation in history, it’s clearly climate whiplash,” Donnelly said. 

Death Valley damage from Hilary
Road crews along Highway 190, where most of the road was washed out by Tropical Storm Hilary the week before, in Death Valley on Aug. 31, 2023.Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

The rain closed the park, as well as Highway 127, which connects it to gateway communities but had become “a raging river,” Sorrells said.

She operates an ecotourism business with a 20-bed inn, hiking trails, a trading post, an RV park and the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon. For Sorrells, the situation was dire, as the highway’s reconstruction was slated to last through the winter and into spring, making the area nearly impossible to access throughout its busy season.

“We have a local joke: We make all our money from October through the end of April, and then we lose it from May through September,” she said. 

The community rallied together and pushed state leaders to speed up the project, Sorrells said. The park partially reopened in October, and the highway in January.

Then things took a fascinating turn.

Spring wildflowers, which germinated in the fall, survived a warm winter, when freezing temperatures would typically knock them back down, according to Donnelly. And in February, a multiday atmospheric river storm system brought another deluge. 

The wildflowers “lasted long enough for the atmospheric river to recharge them with all this rain,” Donnelly said. “Now, they’re growing in a very unusual way. They’re much taller than normal, much thicker-stemmed, very robust wildflowers.”

There was also enough water to revive Lake Manly, an ancient lakebed usually filled with dust.

For the first time, the National Park Service announced in February that it would allow kayakers to paddle on the lake, which was as deep as 3 feet, according to NASA

Kayakers on Lake Manly in Death Valley National Park on Feb. 27, 2024.
Kayakers on Lake Manly in Death Valley National Park on Feb. 27.Bridget Bennett / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

“People really came out for the sensational and fell in love with the beauty and charm and uniqueness of the desert,” Sorrells said. “We just started booming to the point we almost couldn’t keep up with the business.”

Arid climate, flashy weather

Most climate models expect California’s deserts to grow more arid over time, but also for infrequent storms to be more intense because a warmer atmosphere can hold more energy and water. 

“Flashier storms, longer droughts,” Sweet said. 

For some, the past few years have felt like a test drive of a new reality.

Image: Death Valley Hits 130 Degrees, One Of The Highest Temperatures Recorded On Earth
Visitors pose in front of an unofficial thermometer at Furnace Creek Visitor Center on Aug. 17, 2020 in Death Valley National Park.Mario Tama / Getty Images

Many desert species go dormant or hibernate during drought, which can make wet years look like a relative pageant of color and activity.

The Mojave Desert tortoise, for example, weathers drought in underground burrows. Female tortoises can store sperm for years and save it for when the climate is just right to fertilize their eggs.

Some hard-coated desert wildflower seeds can last for hundreds of years, until the right conditions emerge. 

“Death Valley is very extreme. You have to assume that plants and animals are adapted to the edges of what’s livable there. As it gets hotter, that gets to be more of a challenge,” Sweet said.

Now, the rain is bringing renewal.  

New shrubs are emerging, Sweet said, though they’ll need a “nice series of wet years” to survive. Wildflowers are feeding harvester ants, which feed lizards, which feed coyotes and other species. 

“We’re hoping the increase in resources makes its way up the food chain,” Sweet said. 

In a future that looks hotter and drier, she added, such respites will be essential: “Hopefully we’ll get these recovery periods of precipitation to refill the seed bank and energy reservoir of the whole ecosystem.”