Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Water for Antiques
by Robert N. Stephenson

by Sierra July

Skipper Jeremiah Dudd
by Mark Ayling

If You Could Choose One Day
by Simon Kewin

It’s the Martian Way
by Bob Sojka

Know, Oh Emperor
by L. Joseph Shosty

Abernathy’s Snowflake
by Aaron Polson

Lost and First Men
by David Barber

by Mark Bilsborough

These Undiminished
by Conor Powers-Smith

by George Sandison


Inside Death Valley
by Eric M. Jones

Is Global Warming Good?
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Inside Death Valley

By Eric M. Jones

DEATH VALLEY. A TRULY DELIGHTFUL place with a name to match.

A few years ago, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) invalidated the September 13, 1922, El Azizia, Libya claim to the record highest temperature 57.8°C (136 °F) because of the combination of a poor weather instrument, a bad location for accurate readings, an inexperienced record-keeper and some other monkey business. The actual temperature is thought to have been several degrees cooler than this.

They also corrected and lowered Kebili, Tunisia’s highest recorded temperature on July 7, 1931, to 55.0°C (131°F).

This was just a relatively cool breeze compared to Death Valley, California. The WMO branded their sizzling imprimatur on Furnace Creek (Greenland) Ranch, Death Valley, California, at 56.7°C, (134°F) on July 10, 1913, as by far the hottest place on Earth. This came as no surprise to anyone who has spent even a little time in Death Valley. There was a recorded 58.3°C (137°F) at Furnace Creek Ranch in 1883, decades before the weather boffins arrived with their mules and meters in 1911.

The lowest point, -86 m (-282 ft.), in the Western Hemisphere is a spot appropriately called Badwater, a couple miles south of Furnace Creek Ranch. There is some water there, and it is very bad. It is known consistently to be even a few degrees hotter than Furnace Creek Ranch. Nobody has yet volunteered to walk the two miles south on the salt flat to Badwater when the temperatures are in record range. A short time exposed to Badwater’s heat, even with all the water you could carry, is death. (Photo of Badwater salt flats below.)

Legend has it that the appointed man-in-charge of recording the official high temperature that day in 1913 at Furnace Creek Ranch said, “Hell, I ain’t goin’ out there ...”

The “Furnace Creek” at Furnace Creek Ranch comes out of the ground at Travertine Springs, almost too hot to drink, but evaporation soon cools it off somewhat. There is pool at Furnace Creek Ranch under the date palm trees. The water is still 29.4°C (85°F). Upon getting out of this pool, evaporation is so rapid that one shivers from the cold ... but half a minute later one is perfectly dry, and it is suddenly like someone opened the furnace door.

One reason for the WMO’s declaration was that Death Valley is the hottest and driest place for a very well-understood reason: The Pacific Ocean Humboldt Current that sweeps down from the Gulf of Alaska is very cold. This is the source of the west wind that keeps coastal California both cool and dry. Cold ocean water means dry air, but this air crosses several mountain ranges as it travels eastward towards Death Valley, losing the remaining moisture at each one. The last of these is the nearly-impenetrable Panamint Range whose snow-capped peaks top out at 3,366 m (11,043 ft.), wringing out the last drops of moisture from the air.

Cold and dry air is the densest air. At the top of the Panamint Range, the air gets pushed over the summit and slides down the mountain towards the Death Valley floor, being compressed and heated as it descends. This air is trapped in the narrow, deep valley by the surrounding mountains and is relentlessly heated by the rocks and salt flats. When the prevailing west wind blows, the humidity in Death Valley is routinely a low single digit and is frequently reported as flat zero. Usually, the yearly rainfall can be measured in millimeters. Not a drop of rain was recorded in the years 1929 and 1953. The driest stretch on record was only 16 mm (0.64 in.) of rain over a 40 month period in 1931 to 1934. Often the dark clouds announce only choking black sandstorms.

Death Valley is the driest place on Earth. But it turns out—paradoxically—that it has plenty of water. Ten thousand years ago it was a lake bottom. It’s the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and water flows downhill into the valley from all the surrounding creeks and aquifers. Furnace Creek Ranch itself is a classic desert date palm oasis, and there are several more scattered about the valley. The surrounding mountains have dozens of springs and streams flowing freely from snow packs in the Panamint Mountains.

So where does all the water hide? Death Valley actually evaporates 381 cm (150 in.) per year of the water it hardly seems to have had at all. The water hides in its most notable feature—its 500 sq. km (200 sq. mi.) salt flat or salt marsh. A mixture of many salts, but mostly NaCl, it has been probed to 65 m (200 ft.) deep without a hint of touching bottom. The true depth could be very great. Nobody knows.

Prospectors discovered Death Valley in 1849 during the California Gold Rush. It looked like it might be a shortcut to the gold fields and that information was worth its weight in ... you know ...! But nothing here is what it seems. The salt flat was too soft for oxen to pull heavy wagons loaded with settlers and their supplies. There was no forage for draft animals. Many oxen were slaughtered to make jerky and the wagons burned. In truth, very few people died. There was water, and jerky, and the clothes on their backs. The settlers walked out.

After the California gold rush of 1849, the area was explored and found to be extremely rich in minerals. The gypsum, sodium nitrate, sodium chloride, and borax of the lowlands seemed inexhaustible. Vast deposits of silver and gold were discovered in the surrounding mountains. The famous, and gigantic, 20 Mule Team wagons trucked vast quantities from the Harmony Borax Works to the railhead in Mojave, 258 km (160 mi.) south. This continued until a rail spur was built to Death Valley Junction.

The area is littered with abandoned mining camps, deserted towns, and spent silver and gold mines in the surrounding mountains. Banditry was once common. One silver mine operator solved the problem of frequent shipment hijackings by casting his silver shipments into massive 200 kg (440 lb.) cannonballs that could not be transported by horse, nor lifted by thieves. These silver balls were shipped to Los Angeles in unguarded wagons. This proved completely safe.

Stories abound, like that of Jacob Breyfogle who prospected the area about 1860. He lost his horse and all his gear and wandered around the mountains for weeks badwatereating roots, a lizard or two, and carrying alkali water in his shoes. He was finally rescued but was delirious and had completely lost his memory. He did, however, have a pocket full of astonishing blood-red quartz rocks studded with gold. After he recovered his health he spent most of the rest of his life trying to retrace his steps—but never found the source.

Supplying the mines and the miners with timber, food, and water was a daunting problem. Most of the soils are alkaline. Raw meat putrefies in an hour at 130°F. Eggs cook themselves. One early project to remedy the food shortage was attempted by the proprietors of Furnace Creek Ranch, who imported live hogs and chickens. It was a matter of days before the hogs dug tunnels into the ground and couldn’t be coerced to come out. This behavior had never been seen before. The chickens quickly followed the hogs into their underground lair and were eaten by the subterranean hogs. Then the hogs ate each other.

Great mysteries abound in the area. Consider the phenomenon of the “Sailing Rocks” of the “Racetrack Playa” where heavy rocks leave tracks where they apparently glide across a muddy flat. Surprisingly, their movement has never been recorded. There are some theories, but basically no explanation seems to stick, and any explanation involves a lot of hand-waving and guesses. Even if one of the offered explanations is true, the revealing question is why no similar phenomenon is known to occur anywhere else? (See “Death Valley Racetrack Playa” on YouTube).

When night falls, the stars come out in shocking brilliance never seen by city dwellers. From Dante’s View, a terrace 1,669 m (5,476 ft.) high, overlooking Death Valley, one would imagine one is riding on an asteroid. The starry sky above reflects on small pools of water on the valley floor or even the white crystals themselves.

Death Valley habitats are home to bighorn sheep, lizards, snakes, plus more than 300 species of birds, 36 species of reptiles, three species of amphibians and—astonishingly—five species and one sub-species of native pupfish, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, mule deer and over 50 other species of native mammals, mostly small.

Animals come out from their cooler dens to hunt and feed, especially in the surrounding mountains. It is common in the desert for many animals to never appear in the daytime.

Being underground is good survival strategy for animals and humans. There are Timbisha Shoshones who have lived here for centuries before the first non-native settler saw the valley. Most are in the Panamint Mountains, but some live in the Furnace Creek Ranch area.

The Death Valley lowlands are far too harsh for cactuses, which are after all succulents. But many plants have adapted to the environment. When the rare rains fall, the hills explode into color with flower blossoms everywhere. The flowers’ nectar attracts newly hatched flies and smell of mule deer. Nothing is what you think it is in this strange place.

The temperature in Death Valley does not decline much at night. A day when the temperature reaches 120°F (48.9°C) might moderate at night to perhaps 100°F (37.8°C) because the rocks and salt contain so much heat.

So if this sounds like a travelogue, maybe it is. If you are the kind of person who seeks really new and perhaps otherworldy sights, don’t miss this place. Plan on making two trips to Death Valley: a short one in the summer and longer one in the winter. Make sure to visit Ubehebe Crater, the Furnace Creek Inn Sunday brunch, Scotty’s Castle, The Armargosa Opera (and hotel). Take one of those super-bargain gambler flights to Las Vegas and rent a car. As Tom Petty sings, “It ain’t like anywhere else ...” END

Further Reading

Death Valley National Park Weather and Climate.
Temperatures and Precipitation.
Death Valley Climb Out.

Eric M. Jones is the Contributing Editor of “Perihelion.” He is an engineer, designer, consultant, and entrepreneur. His Internet business PerihelionDesign, builds and sells products, parts and materials to the home-built experimental aircraft community.