Mexico earthquake sparks ‘desert tsunami’ in Death Valley cave 1,500 miles away in Nevada

·3 min read

An earthquake that struck Mexico earlier this week prompted four-foot waves to crash around a cave system in Nevada’s Death Valley.

The 7.6 magnitube quake shook the states of Colima and Michoacán in western Mexico on Monday (19 September). The Devil’s Hole cave system in Death Valley National Park, which is located in eastern California and stretches into parts of Nevada, is around 1,500 miles to the north.

The highest temperature ever recorded on Earth was registered in Death Valley on 10 July 1913, when a temperature of 56.7 degrees Celsius (134 Fahrenheit) was reached, according to Guinness World Records.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration state that the area gets as little as 2.2 inches of rainfall each year on average.

Within that particularly dry area, Devil’s Hole is a “geothermal cave system” holding water, according to the National Park Service (NPS).

The cave system is “the only natural habitat for the highly endangered Devils Hole pupfish,” the NPS states on its site. There are only between 100 and 180 in the wild.

The cave system is more than 430 feet (131 metres) deep, with the pupfish present in the top 80 feet (24.3 metres).

The water in the caves is usually calm, high in carbonate, and low in oxygen. The average temperature is 93 degrees Fahrenheit (34 Celsius).

The pupfish feed on the algae which grows in the waters.

Earlier this week, 22 minutes after the earthquake struck in Mexico, waves measuring four feet thrashed around the cave system.

“On September 19th, 2022 a large earthquake that rocked the Pacific Coast of Mexico made waves in Devil’s Hole—literally,” Death Valley National Park wrote in a post on Facebook on Wednesday. “The 7.6 magnitude event struck near the Colima-Michoacan border at 11:05 AM local time (PDT; 1:05 PM at the epicenter). NPS staff were onsite conducting research and witnessed the effects firsthand. Within five minutes, the normally still water in the pool began slowly moving, and soon built to waves several feet high.”

“The highly endangered Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) has thankfully evolved with these types of periodic natural disturbances, and they were fine and swimming (happily?) afterward,” park staff added in the post. “Keeping with previous observations, staff expect to see an increase in spawning activity over the next few days, hopefully resulting in even more recruits into the population.”

An increase in population also took place after other earthquakes that led to waves in Devil’s Hole, Newsweek noted. The 2012 quake in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, the Gulf of Alaska quake in 2018, and the Ridgecrest earthquakes in 2019 all prompted the waters to bring down algae from the rocks, affecting the food supply.

“It’s crazy that distant earthquakes affect Devil’s Hole,” Kevin Wilson, an Aquatic Ecologist for Death Valley National Park, said in a statement in January 2018 following the Alaska quake. “We’ve seen this a few times before, but it still amazes me.”

According to NPS, “the phenomenon is technically known as a seismic seiche. They are standing waves in an enclosed body of water (such as a lake or a pool) caused by an earthquake’s seismic waves”.

“That sounds a lot like a tsunami, but tsunamis are caused by an earthquake moving the ocean floor up or down. Tsunamis can generate much larger waves,” Mr Wilson added at the time.