It’s March in Death Valley, California, and the snow-capped peaks of the Panamint Range sparkle against the deep blue sky. Below the mountains, a dry expanse of desert typically stretches out as far as the eye can see. But now, something is different, and a vast lake of water sits improbably in one of the driest places on Earth.
From Africa’s sprawling Sahara to Asia’s vast Gobi, deserts make up around a third of the landmass on planet Earth. Technically, the word can be used to describe any region that experiences minimal rainfall throughout the year. However, it tends to make us think of hot, arid and inhospitable places – and in most cases that’s an accurate stereotype.
For example, researchers in Libya once reported a world record of 136°F in the Sahara, although that measurement has since been disputed. Outside of the polar regions, meanwhile, the driest place on Earth is the Atacama Desert in South America. In fact, in some parts of this plateau the average rainfall is as low as 0.04 inches a year.