Lessons From the Field #4: Elevation matters

In a continuation of my previous discussion about my trip to Death Valley this March, I wanted to bring up the profound impact elevation has on temperature.  When we arrived at Furnace Creek the first night it was in the 60s Fahrenheit.  This was at an elevation of 190 feet below sea level.  Just before dark I took this picture of some palm trees (family Arecaceae) near the campground:

Palm trees at Furnace Creek. Photographed 03/2010 in Death Valley National Park, California.

That night it snowed in the surrounding mountains:

Snow blanketing the Panamint Range in Death Valley National Park. Photographed 03/10.

The following morning we set out to Dante’s View in the Amargosa Range, some 5500 feet above sea level.  I really wanted to go here, since you can look west and simultaneously see the lowest point in North America (Badwater Basin at -282 feet) and the highest point in the contiguous United States (Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet).  That would have been really cool.  Unfortunately, this is where the importance of elevation comes into play:

The approach to Dante’s View in Death Valley, photographed 03/10.

The steep gradient and ice- and snow-covered road made travel difficult.  As we approached Dante’s View, the road became even steeper and the van began to slip and slide, and it refused to ascend any further.  We turned back, but not before we had to get out of the van to get it unstuck.  It was then that I was able to appreciate how cold it was at around 5300 feet:

The author freezing to death in the hottest place in North America. To be fair, this was at a significant elevation and not at the notoriously hot sub-sea-level Furnace Creek or Badwater Basin.

And to think I woke up that morning in a t-shirt.  Later that day we ventured to Mosaic Canyon, near sea level, and it was back into the 80s Fahrenheit.

The effect of elevation on temperature is probably mundane to people out west.  To a native of southeast Michigan’s flatlands (glacial lake basin), this was pretty cool to experience.

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About Jeremy Sell

Science and nature nerd.
This entry was posted in Geology, Lessons From the Field, National Parks and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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