North America’s Lowest Point on Land is Currently a Lake

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Record setting rain both this year and last year is bringing back ancient lakes, albeit temporarily, to some areas of California. Last year, Tulare Lake in the Central Valley re-emerged after heavy rains. Dating back to the Pleistocene Era, Tulare Lake had been drained to make way for farmland starting in the 1870s.

The lake now exists as a seasonal body of water, occasionally making an appearance whenever the Tulare basin floods. In the last 55 years, Tulare Lake has refilled in 1969, 1983, 1997, and 2023. A massive pumping effort by property owners affected by flooding 2023 has held off the lake’s reappearance in 2024 despite record breaking rain.

Badwater Basin becomes a temporary lake

This year, the ancient California lake making the news for reappearing a lake that reformed over Badwater Basin. Badwater Basin in Death Valley is typically known for being the lowest point on land in North America. A dried out lake bed of salt flats, Badwater Basin’s lowest point is 282 ft (86 m) below sea level. Badwater Basins is known for its unique polygon shapes formed by the fracturing and uplifting of salt.

The tail end of Hurricane Hillary dropped 2.2 inches of rain on August 20, 2023 at Badwater Basin. Typically Death Valley, also known for being one of the driest and hottest places in the United States, receives only 2 inches (51 millimeters) of rain in an entire year.


Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!
Email:  

The pluvial lake is informally known as  “Lake Manly” and measures about  six miles long, three miles wide, and one foot deep. The endorheic lake persisted into winter, refilling back up when an atmospheric river between February 4 and 7, 2024 brought another 1.5 inches of precipitation. Lake Manly reached depths of about 12-20 inches across the basin floor.

Lake Manly’s original existence dates back tens of thousands of years according to the National Park Service, having existed 186,000 years to 120,000 years ago and again 35,000 to 10,000 years ago. Glacial Lake Manly was an endorheic lake that once measured 100 miles long and 600 feet deep — the evaporation of water and no drainage out of the lake over thousands of years led to the buildup of salts that make up the floor of Badwater Basin today.

Lake Manly, then referred to as Lake Badwater by NASA, also temporarily re-emerged in February of 2005 after an usually high period of precipitation. The lake persisted across the floor of Badwater Basin until about May of that year.

A traveling lake

The temporary presence of Lake Manly in a normally arid region is not the only interesting phenomenon about Lake Manly’s presence across Badwater Basin. Shifting winds have also created conditions where the lake has traveled. Between February 29 and March 2, 2024, sustained high winds pushed the lake approximately two miles northward, simultaneously increasing the lake’s surface area and expediting its evaporation process.

With the shift of the lake’s location, the National Park Service put a stop to any kayaking and boating activities that had previously been permitted on Lake Manly. This was done in order to prevent the long-lasting environmental damage caused by footprints and boat drag marks on the newly formed mudflats.

As the winds died away, the Lake Manly’s waters returned to the original footprint, although muddier from movement and shallower in depth.

A view taken from a hill of a muddy lake surrounded by white salt flats in Badwater Basin.
NPS photo taken on March 4, 2024, from Dante’s View overlooking Badwater Basin, reveals that Lake Manly has resettled back to its original position after moving two miles northward due to windy conditions. Photo: John Hallett/NPS, public domain.

References

Doermann, L., & Liang, W. (2024, February 16). Badwater basin refills. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/152448/badwater-basin-refills

Wines, A., & Lamar, M. (2024, March 4). Rare opportunity to kayak in Death Valley National Park. NPS.gov. https://www.nps.gov/deva/learn/news/lake-manly.htm

Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.