A person looks from a viewpoint, Sunday, 2021 Jul 11, in Death Valley National Park, Calif. Death Valley in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit (53 Celsius) on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service’s reading at Furnace Creek. The shockingly high temperature was actually lower than the previous day, when the location reached 130 F (54 C). (AP Photo/John Locher)
Pack your skis, we’re heading to Death Valley.
The hottest location on Earth has topped the 130-degree mark three times in recorded history, is drier than the Sahara Desert and once, just once, received a half-inch of snow.
It wasn’t the only instance in history that snow has been documented in the desert region, as trace amounts were recorded on five other occasions, but the unprecedented day in 1922 was the only time a measurable amount has ever fallen.
According to data from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Death Valley snow was observed at a weather station situated at Greenland Ranch on 1922 Jan 29, when a half-inch was recorded, with no information given as to what time the snow fell.
But that certainly doesn’t mean the snow didn’t fall.
Researchers Steven Roof and Charlie Callagan, in a 2003 article titled “The Climate of Death Valley, California,” published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, noted that the Furnace Creek observers also reported rainfall from that day, thus eliminating the possibility that they wrote the precipitation value in the wrong column.
The NOAA reportings are part of the publication “A Century of Weather in Death Valley, CA,” published by National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist Chris Stachelski.
Stachelski wrote that on top of the precipitation note, daily weather maps from the Weather Bureau show that an area of low pressure had moved ashore in Northern California on Jan. 30, while a weather station in nearby Goldfield, Nevada, also recorded snow falling at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 29.
“Oddly enough, temperatures during this time period in Death Valley were shown to be above freezing,” he said. “The morning low on the 29th was reported to be 36 degrees and the afternoon high was 65 degrees.”
Therefore, the snow most likely fell during the early morning hours of Jan. 29, even if temperatures never dropped below freezing.
Daily weather map from 1922 Jan 30, showing the storm system that brought snow to Death Valley. (Via NOAA)
“Even though temperatures were above freezing, dry low levels in the atmosphere could have likely contributed to some sort of evaporative cooling process which would have allowed the precipitation to fall as snow,” Stachelski wrote, citing multiple other instances when that cooling process aided in snowfall reaching the ground in nearby Las Vegas.
Subfreezing temperatures have been recorded on numerous occasions in the national park, including an all-time low of 15 degrees Fahrenheit on Jan. 8, 1913. Remarkably, that was the same year that saw thermometers reach an all-time high of 134 degrees, six months later in July.
No other day in recorded history has seen a temperature that high.
The Greenland Ranch weather station in Death Valley, where the only measured snowfall in history was recorded. (Via NOAA)
Roof and Callagan also noted that in January 1922, surrounding areas outside of Death Valley also reported uniquely rare snowfall, as chronicled by the newspapers the Inyo Independent and the Goldfield Daily Tribune. Both papers mention that 4 inches fell in Goldfield and 12 inches fell in Las Vegas from this same system.
Stachelski’s research also showed snow reports from the nearby Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin, which Stachelski contends “fully supports the observation of accumulating snow at Death Valley.”
The wintry influence of La Niña
Like many other weather events in the Southwest, such as the annual monsoon or the Santa Ana winds, the influence of La Niña and the anomalous snow events in Death Valley could be connected, Stachelski wrote.
Although the stronger correlation between La Niña episodes and Death Valley indicates below-normal precipitation, an established trend in the Southwest exhibits a trend of snowfall during La Niña winters in lower elevations.
“The 1973-1974 La Niña, while strong, did result in near-normal precipitation for the cold season,” Stachelski’s research showed. “This was also the only La Niña episode where snow fell at Death Valley and one of only four winter seasons where snow has ever fallen here. Traces of snow fell on two days that month – the 4th and 5th. There has been a noted trend in the southwest U.S. to see snow in La Niña winters in lower elevations.”
The low-pressure system that brought wintry weather to the Southwest in 1949. (Penn State analysis image via NOAA)
Other snowy Death Valley moments
As previously mentioned, the 1922 snow observation wasn’t the only instance of snow in Death Valley, just the only time that a measurable amount fell.
The other occurrences all came during the month of January including twice in 1949, once in 1962 and twice in 1974.
The weather of January 1949 was noted by Stachelski to have been particularly “notorious for the widespread cold and snow” across the southwestern United States. That cold brought multiple days of measurable precipitation to Death Valley, with a total of 0.3 of an inch measured between Jan. 8 and 13.
During that span, a trace amount of Death Valley snow was observed on two separate days, on Jan. 9 and Jan. 11, by the weather station at Furnace Creek Ranch, located across the road from where the Greenland Ranch station had operated.
“On the 11th, snow was reported by the observer to have fallen from 1:45 p.m. until 2:15 p.m,” Stachelski wrote. “Although the liquid-equivalent was also a trace in both instances when snow fell, the observer did remark that snow did cover the ground at the ranch but did not indicate a day. In addition, it was remarked the snow melted fast and did not appear to damage any date trees.”
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