How Deep Was Lake Manly, Death Valley’s Short-Lived Lake?

How Deep Was Lake Manly, Death Valley’s Short-Lived Lake?

Despite normally being drier than your mouth after demolishing a pack of saltines, the summer of 2023 saw Death Valley transformed by the appearance of a temporary lake in Badwater Basin. Though it’s now disappeared, thanks to a new analysis of satellite images, we now know how the depth of this ephemeral lake changed over time.

Being in Death Valley, aka the driest place in North America, Badwater Basin generally doesn’t have any water in it. So, when Hurricane Hilary brought heavy rainfall to the region last August, creating a temporary body of water known as Lake Manly, there were no permanent instruments in place to measure it.

That’s where the US-French Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite came in. Launched in 2022, the satellite hosts an instrument called the Ka-band Radar Interferometer (KaRIn) that can measure the surface height of water.

Using surface height data collected from SWOT and subtracting it from Badwater Basin’s land elevation data, researchers were able to estimate the depth of Lake Manly over the course of about six weeks in February and March 2024.

“This is a really cool example of how SWOT can track how unique lake systems work,” said Tamlin Pavelsky, hydrologist and the NASA freshwater science lead for SWOT, in a statement.

Their calculations revealed that depths in the lake during that time ranged from about 1 meter (3 feet) to less than 0.5 meters (1.5 feet).

From the data, the team were also able to generate images representing the water depth. The one representing February 23 shows an increase in depth in parts of the lake after previously looking like it was disappearing. This matches up with what we might expect from the weather around that time.

Early February saw an atmospheric river dump 38 millimeters (1.5 inches) of rain into Death Valley in just three days – it normally only gets 50 millimeters (2 inches) in a year. Some of that water drained into the basin, and lo and behold, Lake Manly’s death sentence was commuted.

Though the satellite data helps to give a more accurate picture, the fact that visitors to the lake were successfully able to kayak on the waters also indicates they were reasonably deep.

All good things must come to an end, however, and as the image from March 4 shows, Lake Manly was gradually becoming shallower and disappearing – on that date, boating was no longer allowed. This was helped along by another bout of severe weather.

“[I]ntense winds from February 29 through March 2 blew the lake to the north, spreading it out, resulting in shallower water,” read a statement from the Death Valley National Park Service posted at the time.

The curtain might have fallen on Lake Manly, but SWOT will continue to be busy until the next time it pops up – it’s on a mission to measure the elevation of nearly all the water on Earth’s surface.

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