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PARKS! Part 4: Would flooding Death Valley offset sea level rise?

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Death Valley National Park, the largest park in the contiguous United States, straddling the border of California and Nevada, is also the hottest, driest and lowest park, dropping to 282 feet below sea level. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Death Valley National Park, the largest park in the contiguous United States, straddling the border of California and Nevada, is also the hottest, driest and lowest park, dropping to 282 feet below sea level. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

The seas are rising. Humans have already pumped enough greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere to raise ocean levels up to 2 feet by the end of the century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If we do not curb our use of fossil fuels, we are looking at up to 7 feet.

That rise could drive 2 billion people from their homes and cost $14 trillion a year. And once the seas go up, they will not fall — not on any human timescale. But what if they could?

On the subreddit AskScience, one user proposed a potential solution: What if we took our excess seawater and dumped it into Death Valley? The national park, located in the Mojave Desert, reaches 282 feet below sea level and used to be the site of a massive lake.

Endless Thread co-host's Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson talk with producer Dean Russell, who looked into the idea.

Show notes

Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Dean Russell: Amory. Ben.

Ben Brock Johnson: Ranger Dean.

Amory Sivertson: Ranger Dean!

Dean: All right, what is the biggest construction project that you can think of? In all of humanity, what tops the list?

Amory: The pyramids.

Ben: Yeah. But that was built by aliens.

Dean: Not human.

Amory: Oh, in all of humanity? Okay. Yeah.

Ben: One of Elon Musk's completely failed tunneling experiments?

Amory: Yeah.

Dean: I looked this up, and the real answer to this is kinda, sorta the Great Wall of China.

Ben: Oh, duh. The only one you can see from space — or one of the ones you can see from space.

Dean: But I have a proposed construction project that could be bigger, something that could help combat one of the greatest threats to our world.

Amory: The greatest threat to our world?

Ben: Running out of popcorn is high up there, so some sort of large popcorn maker?

Dean: I'm talking about climate change. Specifically, it could address one giant problem caused by climate change...

[Newscaster: Sea levels are rising...]

[Newscaster: ...sea levels are rising...]

[Newscaster: ...rising sea levels...]

[Newscaster: ...sea level rise is accelerating.]

Dean: Just a few fast facts here. By 2050 on our current trajectory, the boot of Louisiana loses its toes. By 2080, the areas around Savannah, Georgia; Ho Chi Minh; Kolkata — huge populations — underwater. By 2100, in the worst-case scenario, an estimated 2 billion people could become refugees just from sea level rise alone. Even our beloved city of Boston turns into an archipelago, and WBUR becomes waterfront property.

Amory: You could go for a lunchtime swim, Ben.

Ben: And I would.

Amory: I could learn how to swim

Dean: Silver linings, I guess. So setting that aside, all pretty miserable, right? What if I told you, though, that one wild idea from Reddit could make all of that just go away? You would just need to give up a tiny something in return...

[Documentary narrator: From the Ava Watts Mountains, which formed the southern barrier...]

Dean: ...just a little bit of dirt that no one cares about...

[Documentary narrator: ...this fascinating valley of color and sunshine contains nearly 3000 square miles...]

Dean: enormous pit that no one needs...

[Documentary narrator: ...about 550 square miles are below the level of the sea...]

Dean: unpleasant, so useless, so fatal that it earned the name:

[Documentary narrator: Death Valley.]

Dean: Today, we're gonna take all that excess water from sea level rise, and instead of letting our cities drown, we're gonna pour it into Death Valley National Park.

Ben: Somebody get a pitcher!

Dean: I'm Dean-whose-name-autocorrects-to-Death Russell.

Amory: I am Amory Sivertson, whose name autocorrects to too many ridiculous things.

Ben: And I'm Ben Brock Johnson, and Google knows my name. And you're listening to Endless Thread.

Amory: We're coming to you from WBUR, Boston's Waterfront NPR Station.

Ben: Today's episode, the last in our park series about the outdoors, online, producer Dean Russell dives into the internet's wild idea for resisting climate change. This is...

Dean: Death Sea!

Amory: Death Sea!

Ben: Death Sea!

Dean: Okay, so I saw this question pop up a little while ago on the subreddit, AskScience, and I have been eager for the right moment to wade in. Here's the question:


Ben: "Death Valley is 282' below sea level..."

Amory: "...Would it offset the rising ocean to build a canal and create the Death Valley Sea?"

Dean: Death Valley National Park, which is located in the Mojave Desert in California and Nevada, is the largest park in the contiguous US: 3.4 million acres of desert. It's also the hottest and driest and lowest park. So this question is basically like, what if we built a canal from the Pacific Ocean and just filled this thing up? Eight thousand upvotes on it. Tons of comments. What do you think?

Ben: Yeah, I mean, it's a beach project, you know? Get your little plastic bucket and your little plastic shovel out, and make sure you're well-hydrated with some watermelon from the cooler, and you're good to go.

Amory: I feel like it can't be that simple. The problem seems too big, like Death Valley is big, but the problem is maybe much bigger.

Dean: So the way I and Reddit's AskScience approached this question was kind of like: Alright, not a huge fan of destruction for destruction's sake, but if we do have a solution, maybe we should consider it. I mean, what is so great about Death Valley?

Chris Clarke: People imagine that it's a valueless place or that it's a broken version of something else.

Dean: This is Chris Clarke. By day, he works for the National Parks Conservation Association...

Dean: ...and at night?

Chris: At night, I am co-host of the 90 Miles from Needles podcast.

Dean: That is a podcast dedicated to protecting the desert.

Ben: We're gonna have to get rid of that first.

Dean: Chris lives not far from Death Valley in Southern California. He has heard this idea a number of times, and he took a close look at the Reddit thread. First reaction?

Chris: I definitely encourage anyone that's thinking of filling Death Valley with water to visit first and see what's there.

Dean: So I thought we would start there. Let's visit Death Valley.

Ben: Yeah. Let me just get that dad hat with the little blanket on the back of it that goes over my neck.

Amory: I got the sunscreen.

Dean: JK. I don't want to go stand around in Death Valley right now because...

Chris: First off, you're not gonna be standing there for very long, if you have any sense, because it's somewhere around 120 degrees on a cool day right now.

Dean: It's pretty hot. Like, hard-to-comprehend hot. You may have seen the news about so-called heat tourism and how it's become a trend.

Ben: It's so depressing to look at those stories and watch those videos of people giddily running into a furnace.

Kevin Wilson: When you get out of your air conditioned car or out of your air conditioned home or office, it kind of almost takes your breath away, like jumping into really cold water. But it's just the heat and your body goes, "Wow."

Dean: That's another guy I talked to. Kevin Wilson, aquatic ecologist for Death Valley National Park. Yes, they do have fish. Kevin, surprise, surprise, also not a fan of this proposal.

Kevin: My knee-jerk reaction without my scientist hat or NPS hat is like, "Whoa, that's crazy..."

Dean: Crazy, but not so crazy it's unimaginable.

Ben: So wait, did you ask them to dive—? Were you like, "Will you please read these internet opinions?"

Dean: I sent this question to a lot of experts and...

Ben: Kevin and Chris were the only people who agreed to look at it carefully?

Dean: Kevin and Chris — who weren't the only people to respond to me — they took a look at this thread. And the most obvious reason for not flooding it wasn't even mentioned: it's beautiful.

Kevin: You really start with this creosote shrubland, and then as you descend, from we call it the 3000 Point Level down into the park, it becomes more sparse of vegetation, and the vegetation changes. You can really see all the different layers of rock, the different types of rock. And, so it becomes, you know, kind of like a moonscape.

Dean: At the bottom of Death Valley is a glistening salt flat surrounded by mountains, and yes, it is quite beautiful. I've actually been here, but it wasn't always a beautiful desert because it was basically made to hold water.

Chris: During the Ice Ages, Death Valley was full of water. Well above sea level.

Dean: Three hundred feet above sea level.

Ben: Sounds like a good holding tank. Let's fill her up.

Chris: There were year-round flowing streams and cutthroat trout in those streams.

Kevin: And there are Native American runes that used to surround the old lake shore, essentially.

Dean: It wasn't until about 10,000 years ago that the earth warmed and Death Valley dried up. And so this argument that it's beautiful as a desert and we should preserve it as a desert, that felt kind of more philosophical than scientific to me. And climate change is an existential threat to humanity. So I reached out to some of the Redditors to see if they could help me understand this problem. More on that in a minute.


Amory: Alright, we're digging into a hypothetical posted on Reddit in the name of saving the planet from rising sea levels caused by climate change. You know, just an easy breezy thought experiment.

Ben: No pressure, us.

Amory: What would happen if we flooded Death Valley National Park?

Dean: Right. The top comment on this Reddit thread is also the most thorough, so I want to go through it. Written by the user CrustalTrudger.

Ben: Wait, hold on, hold on.

Amory: That might be better than Ranger Dean.

Ben: Yeah, that is really good. CrustalTrudger.

Dean: I don't know what that means at all.

Ben: You kind of do, though, in a way. Do you know what I mean? Like it's one of those names where you're like, I don't know, but you know.

Dean: So I reached out to Crustal, who turned out to be a mod on AskScience. And when I asked him to come onto the show, he was like, Ehhh, I'm a geologist, not a hydrologist.

Ben: Po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to, CrustalTrudger.

Dean: Haha, yes and no. I mean, the truth is, there's no perfect occupation to answer this strange hypothetical question. Anyway, Crustal was super nice, and he was willing to give me a little background on this. First, he said a version of this question was getting submitted to AskScience like every week. Like it was a running joke among the mods: Which random basin do people want to fill today? So, part of what got Crustal to respond was just sheer annoyance. But yes, also, that great scientific impulse to share knowledge. So Crustal gave himself an hour to write out a proper answer. Could Death Sea solve the problem of sea level rise? What do you think Crustal said?

Ben: I think they started with, Well, actually...

Amory: I think they said, No way.

Dean: Yup. They said no for three major scientific reasons.

Ben: No plastic bucket, no plastic shovel, and no watermelon.

Dean: So I'm gonna send this to you. I'm gonna ask you to read it.

Ben: Okay.

Dean: Reason number one, Ben?

Ben: They wrote "it would be ridiculously expensive." Okay? But I mean, you know, go look at our defense budget and come back to me.

Amory: I was just gonna say there's no shortage of money in this world if we really wanna solve problems.

Dean: Well, okay. I wanted to know how much it would actually cost, right? The most cost-effective way of approaching this would be to build a pipeline, not a canal, from the Gulf of California to Death Valley. And according to Crustal, that's about 220-some miles. It would go over two mountain ranges. And you could just pump the water as is, but the Southwest is drought central, so it might be more beneficial if we desalinated it, and then we could use that water. So all of that together, you know, how much does that cost? Crustal didn't actually have an exact figure, but I looked this up, and it just so happens that last year Arizona began considering a very similar project. A 200-mile water pipeline from the Gulf to the Southwest with some added desalination.

Ben: Huh.

Amory: Okay.

Dean: Price tag: $5 billion for one single pipeline.

Ben: Yeah. Chump change for America.

Amory: Yeah, just put it on Elon Musk's tab.

Ben: Yeah, please. Actually, yes, please put it on his tab.

Amory: He sneezed that this morning.

Dean: I think you both have the right idea. Just to throw it out there, I also looked up the estimated cost of sea level rise, and that's gonna look like something like $14 trillion.

Ben: Seems higher. Seems like a higher number.

Amory: Okay. Problem number two, CrustalTrudger wrote, "The ocean is large."

Dean: Shocking, right?

Amory: I love this person.

Ben: Water is wet.

Amory: Yeah. Grass is green.

Dean: So, in the last 10 years, the ocean has risen at an average rate of 4.6 millimeters a year.

Ben: Oh, what are we worried about?

Dean: It sounds slow, but it's also not. The previous decade was something like 2.3 millimeters a year, and so the rate is accelerating. On top of that, sea level rise is irreversible, at least on any human timescale, so with that in mind, how much sea level rise would the Death Sea offset?

Chris: I've actually crunched some of the numbers.

Dean: Again, that's Chris Clarke, Desert Hero. He approached this question similarly to CrustalTrudger: Math.

Chris: There is about 355 square miles of Death Valley that is at or below sea level. So it's not all 282 feet deep. Some of it is four inches deep.

Dean: Basically, he's saying that Death Valley isn't a rectangular box. But if it was, it would only be 355 square miles that are 70 feet deep, not 200-plus feet deep.

Ben: It's still pretty deep. But how much water would that hold?

Chris: About 4.5 cubic miles of water.

Amory: Not the amount of water that we probably needed to hold.

Chris: This would counter about a week of sea level rise.

Dean: Now, Crustal worked with more generous numbers, I should say, but even they found that the Death Sea would just offset two millimeters of sea level rise.

Amory: So, not really worth it.

Dean: Not really worth it. But there was pushback on Reddit.

Ben: Opinions?!

Amory: No!

Dean: A couple people pointed out that, Hey, maybe it won't offset sea level rise, but it could help our drought problem, so let's just make it a reservoir.

I called up hydrologist Hoori Ajami at UC Riverside. Her first reaction?

Hoori Ajami: As human beings, we are trying to dominate nature. I mean, what's the point of creating another Salton Sea?

Amory: I am admittedly not familiar with the Salton Sea.

Dean: I didn't know this as well. It's an interesting sidebar, and it got some mentions on the Reddit thread. The Salton Sea is Hoori's specialty, and it's an apt analogue for the Death Sea because...

Hoori: Salton Sea actually is one of the largest lakes in California that, historically, has been around for thousands of years.

Dean: Once upon a time, the Salton Sea was a natural sea in Southern California. But similar to Death Valley, it started to dry up — until white settlers came along. These folks built up agriculture, created irrigation canals with dams. They damned the nearby Colorado River. This is what Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring, this is what she calls the "control of nature." But controlling nature is hard. And in 1905...

Hoori: ...there was a large flood event that broke one of the dams and irrigation canals, and that resulted in the creation of the Salton Sea in a kind of a permanent form.

Ben: I feel like there should almost be a song about the Salton Sea.

Amory: Oh, yeah.

Ben: (Singing.) Once upon a time, the Salton Sea was a natural sea in Southern California. (Talking.) You know what I mean?

Amory: Oh, man, I feel like we are laughing, we are going in this ridiculous direction, so we don't cry.

Ben: I know, I know.

Amory: This is really just like the most depressing thought experiment. But I support it — let's just all sing along. (Singing.) Once upon a time...

Ben and Amory: (Singing.) ...the Salton Sea was a natural sea in Southern California.

Dean: So I have some good news.

Ben: Oh, good.

Dean: Yeah, I mean, just as we could turn Death Valley back into a watery place, humans recreated the Salton Sea, and it was actually kind of nice.

Hoori: During the '70s, this area was — a lot of tourists were coming. Also, because the Salton Sea kind of lies in the Pacific Flyway, this region was one of the major habitats for the migrating birds coming from Alaska towards South America.

Dean: But there were a lot of agricultural chemicals that were draining to the Salton Sea, and in the 1980s, the sea started drying up. It was getting less water from the Colorado River, and it was evaporating faster, and all that toxic stuff like lead and DDT stuck around, meaning the concentration of that stuff increased.

Hoori: And as the sea level is declining, that will expose the lake bed with lots of toxic sediment. And because of the wind, this toxic sediment has been spreading through the region.

Dean: Today, if you go there, you'll see dead fish in the water, toxic dust in the air, massive bird die-offs have happened. It's considered one of the worst ecological disasters in US history.

Hoori: It's very sad when you go there. It is like a dead city, to be honest with you. And unfortunately, because of all these contaminants that are draining to the sea, the smell is very bad, particularly during summertime.

Dean: What does it smell like?

Hoori: Rotten egg.

Ben: I'm feeling less sing-songy all of a sudden.

Amory: So you're saying that if we flooded Death Valley, it could end up like the Salton Sea?

Dean: Probably not exactly, but it would be destructive. Which brings me to our third and final point:

Kevin: What would be the impact to the environment in Death Valley?

Dean: As Kevin Wilson, the park ecologist made clear, Death Valley is a pretty inaccurate name.

Kevin: Seems like an oxymoron, but we do have a lot of fishes in over 800 springs as well.

Dean: There are bighorn sheep, tortoises, jackrabbits, roadrunners, and Chris Clarke told me there are also...

Chris: ...42 plant species that are restricted to the Death Valley area, only found in the neighborhood. About 28 animal species only found around Death Valley,

Kevin: All of the plants and animals have evolved in this extreme environment, so if we're gonna pump this water that the animals and plants have not grown up with, it would have devastating environmental consequences.

Ben: I mean, this is the price you pay.

Dean: Wow. Cold-hearted, cold-hearted. Goodbye, bighorn sheep.

Ben: A couple of clams are gonna die when you do your little beach dig.

Amory: I mean, I'm with you. It sounds cold-hearted, but also we can let the oceans rise and wipe out whatever they wipe out, or we can try to come up with our own solutions, which will wipe out whatever it wipes out. Either way, things are getting wiped out. So like, what is the right answer here? It's all bad. Basically, what I'm saying is there are only bad options.

Ben: And it's also like, we might as well accept the reality that it's been us or them for a long time when it comes to humans and all other species. And we might as well just start acknowledging that no matter what we do, we are gonna try to self-preserve, and the result of that is going to be the destruction of other wildlife.

Dean: Yeah, I mean, I hear the struggle. But I would emphasize that self-preservation isn't inherently destructive — even if, historically, that's how it's been. And not all the options have to be bad. They're hard, but of the ideas that are hard to get around, the Death Valley Sea is, you know, pretty terrible. Ineffective, expensive, deadly. But even if we don't flood Death Valley, this desert isn't going to stay the same because of the problem that we are talking about. Because of climate change. In recent years, it's had record levels of heat. 128, 130 degrees. They have had nights that don't drop below 116. Two people died from heat in the park this year. And it's not just hard for humans.

Chris: We're getting small hawks landing in our yard, just looking for a bit of shade and breathing really hard. And it's clear that they are having a lot of trouble. It's been really, really tough on any kind of animal that can't burrow into the ground to stay cool.

Dean: Trees are dying, precipitation is changing — so it's even dryer or, like what just happened in Death Valley with Tropical Storm Hilary, you get a ton of rain all at once, which causes flash floods. And the heat — the heat is just going to get worse.

Kevin: So the question is, Can the plants and animals adapt quickly enough to rapid changes in the climate? Some will, some won't be able to.

Dean: Moments ago, I mentioned the phrase "control of nature." Every time we control nature, whether on purpose or not, we see unexpected consequences. So you might say that the best thing for us to do is to back off, let nature be nature, right? But we've already controlled — and in turn, damaged — the planet so much that nature actually needs our help.

The writer Elizabeth Kolbert calls this "the control of the control of nature." People are going to have to find new habitats for some of the creatures as their home in Death Valley becomes hotter and drier and ultimately uninhabitable. The only thing that could prevent Death Valley from changing too much, the only thing that could prevent the seas from rising too much, is not a cool, unique fix like flooding some random desert. It's a pretty boring fix, one we've known about for decades.

We have to use less energy. We have to eat less meat. We have to go electric. We have to pressure our legislators. We have to stop giving our money to the guilty fossil fuel companies. We have to think about what we are doing every single day and not tune it out because we are too sad or overwhelmed or ashamed. We have to change. Otherwise, all these parks that we have been talking about in this series, they are only going to exist online — as memories.

Ben: Well, Dean, I still think we should all get our plastic buckets and shovels out. I'll bring the watermelon, but I appreciate you bringing us this story, especially as the last in our series, because it sort of reminds us that stuff is not here forever. And to me, you know, I annoyingly keep coming back to this idea that the National Parks are kind of like one of the greatest American ideas, in my opinion. And I think in part that is because when we connect with nature, in a very sort of visceral and genuine way, we understand our stewardship. And to me, that is the only way that we are going to actually survive in any way climate change and be happy with the results, or at least okay with the results.

Amory: Yeah, I guess my feeling is solving the problem is much bigger than any one of us, and yet I will say as someone who has been trying to chip away at different parts of my life and just focus on my own ecological footprint in a moment when I feel pretty powerless to do something bigger or like what I'm doing to try to affect greater change isn't working, it still feels good to, to take charge over your own relationship with nature, your own relationship to the planet, and, and try to make little differences. So to the people out there who are like, No, we can't do anything about it. I hear you but also don't let yourself off the hook.

Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.

Boston: This episode was written and produced by Dean Russell, and it's hosted by me, Ben Brock Johnson...

Amory: And me, Amory Sivertson. Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus. The rest of our team is Emily Jankowski, Matt Reed, Grace Tatter, Quincy Walters, and Samata Joshi.

Ben: This wraps our PARKS! series. We'll be back with regular programming next week. In the meantime, get outside! There's still time!

Dean Russell Producer, WBUR Podcasts
Dean Russell is a producer for WBUR Podcasts.


Paul Vaitkus Production Manager, Podcasts
Paul Vaitkus is the production manager for WBUR's podcast department and is responsible for all things audio.



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