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Death Valley's Harsh Desert Blanketed With Wildflower 'Super Bloom'

The National Park Service says this year's wildflower bloom is the best one Death Valley has seen in years.
National Park Service
The National Park Service says this year's wildflower bloom is the best one Death Valley has seen in years.

Death Valley, Calif., one of the hottest places in the world, is in bloom with more than 20 species of colorful desert wildflowers.

In a statement, the National Park Service says that after unusually strong storms and flash floods last October, "the current flower display is the best the park has experienced in a decade."

Some visitors are calling it a "super bloom," and so is the park's own Instagram feed.

The park notes that "super bloom" is not an official term, though a mythology has developed around it, according to park ranger and 25-year Death Valley resident Alan Van Valkenburg:

"I'm not really sure where the term 'super bloom' originated, but when I first came to work here in the early 1990s I kept hearing the old timers talk about super blooms as a near mythical thing–the ultimate possibility of what a desert wildflower bloom could be. I saw several impressive displays of wildflowers over the years and always wondered how anything could beat them, until I saw my first super bloom in 1998. Then I understood. I never imagined that so much life could exist here in such staggering abundance and intense beauty."

The national park is known for its stark, rugged beauty and extreme contrasts. It's one of the the driest places in North America. With only about 2 inches of rain annually, the lower park elevations — where the bloom started — are typically "a landscape of salt flats, sand dunes and rocky mountains vegetated by a few hardy shrubs and small trees," the park says. This is what that might look like:

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley.
/ National Park Service
National Park Service
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley.

"These areas that are normally just rock, just soil, just barren, not even shrubs — they're filled with life. Death Valley really does go from being a valley of death to a valley of life," says Van Valkenburg. He spoke in a recent video:

That harsh landscape is covered in seeds, and "when you get the perfect conditions, the perfect storm, so to speak — those seeds could all sprout at once," Van Valkenberg says.

The park notes previous "super blooms" in 1998 and 2005 happened during El Nino years like this one. Park officials explain: "El Nino can affect Death Valley by shifting the track of winter and spring storms into the area, increasing rainfall during flower season."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.