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Badwater Blooms
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Badwater Blooms

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WaterShapes LogotypeEric Herman

As natural anomalies go, this year’s rainfall in California has given us one for the record books.

far, one of the most interesting outcomes of the deluges of 2005 is the explosion of life the storms engendered in the harshest desert environment in the United States – so bountiful, in fact, that a lake actually formed at the hottest, lowest and nastiest place on the continent.

That place, known as Badwater, sits at the lowest depths of Death Valley – a spot 282 feet below sea level that is famous for summer temperatures often rising above 125 degrees. For those of you who’ve never been there, the experience of visiting Badwater in a normal year is like stepping into an alien world: The vistas typically consist of hundreds of square miles of barren salt flats punctuated by occasional formations of igneous rock.

I’ve come back to this area frequently since I was a kid, and I’ve acquired something of a taste for those desolate panoramas and strangely sculptural geological details. It’s plainly a place where the availability of water spells the difference between survival and death in the withering heat. Simply put, Death Valley comes by its name honestly, yet it’s still an amazing place to see.

On a trip to the desert this past spring, I ran into an astonishing surprise, courtesy of more rainfall than the state has experienced since they started recording such things in the 1880s. Instead of the typical lifeless rockscapes, I found fields of wildflowers stretching out for miles in every direction with the most vivid colors I’ve ever seen. The orgy of blossoms included the blue pendants of desert lupines, tiny purple chias clinging to ancient lava floes, golden California poppies hugging the hillsides as far as the eye could see and rows of bright, yellow daisies waving in the arid breeze.

Close observers of Death Valley’s annual blooms claim this is the greatest in at least 100 years, and it was humbling to wander amid a riot of life whose very existence seemed a natural contradiction. More amazing still was the presence, deep in the heart of a place I’d long known as Badwater but in which I’d never seen more than a puddle, of a lake fully 25 miles long and a couple feet deep.

Park rangers say there was water down there during the 1994-1995 El Nino storms, but the resulting pools were tiny by comparison and disappeared in rapid order. This year, the rains created a lake so huge that windsurfers and kayakers have been making pilgrimages to play on a lake that might not come back for another century or more. And the experts are saying there’s enough sheer volume that even in Death Valley, the water may be there through the entire summer.

As time has passed, of course, Badwater has been shrinking and the yellow, orange and blue flowers have faded – but the spring of 2005 is already the enduring stuff of legend. It’s a profound reminder that as we observe nature, we are limited by time and our mortal lifespans in perceiving the processes that surround us on all sides. When nature reveals cycles such as this one that span centuries, we are privileged to enjoy the expanded perspective such unpredictable phenomena may yield.

For my part, I’m particularly struck by water’s role in this remarkable display of nature’s power. Water truly is our most valued mineral – the one chemical compound capable of bringing so much life to a place so deservedly called Death Valley.

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