Badwater Basin Salt Flats
Death Valley National Park, California
Covering nearly 200 square miles, Badwater Basin is home to the largest protected body of salt flats in the entire world and at 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point in North America.*
These seemingly endless salt flats are always changing – “The source of Badwater’s salts is Death Valley’s drainage system of 9,000 square miles. Rain falling on distant peaks creates floods that rush ever lower. Along the way, minerals dissolve from rocks and join the flood. Floods come to rest in Badwater Basin, forming temporary lakes. As the water evaporates, minerals concentrate until only the salts remain. After thousands of years, enough salts have washed in to produce layers of salt crust.” (NPS.) Sodium Chloride (table salt), makes up the majority of salts on Badwater Basin, but other evaporative minerals include calcite, gypsum, and borax.
The site also consists of a spring-fed pool where ancient water fills the pool year-round. “Much of it began as Ice Age snow and rain hundreds of miles away in the mountains of central Nevada. The runoff seeped into porous limestone bed-rock and began a long underground flow through a regional aquifer. It emerges in Badwater Basin along the fault line at the mountain’s base. Salts dissolve from old deposits and flow to the surface making the spring water “bad.” A surveyer mapping the area couldn’t get his mule to drink from the pool. He wrote on his map that the spring had “bad water,” and the name stuck.”
- The newly formed lakes from floods do not last long because the 1.9 in (48 mm) of average rainfall is overwhelmed by a 150 in (3,800 mm) annual evaporation rate. This is the greatest evaporation potential in the United States, meaning that a 12 ft (3.7 m) lake could dry up in a single year.
- At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous 48 United States, is only 84.6 miles (136 km) to the north west. An elevation difference of 14,787 feet over a relatively short distance.
*Badwater Basin was considered the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere until the discovery of Laguna del Carbón in Argentina at −344 ft (−105 m).