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‘Tsunami’ recorded in Death Valley

April 9, 2012

Small waves form in Devils Hole in Death Valley shortly after a massive earthquake shook parts of Mexico. The National Park Service said it believes the miniature “tsunami” will not have a lasting impact on the endangered pupfish that are found only in Devils Hole. Still taken from video courtesy National Park Service

In what has been described as an experience rarer than walking on the moon, residents reported witnessing an earthquake-related “tsunami” at the isolated Devils Hole area of Death Valley National Park.
According to the National Park Service, on March 20, Devils Hole was jolted by the shockwaves from a large-scale earthquake that took place in Oaxaca, Mexico. Devils Hole is located in the Amargosa Valley in Nevada.
“National Park Service employees observed and filmed the impact on the water found in the subterranean cave, which supports the endangered Devils Hole pupfish,” National Park Service spokesperson Cheryl Chipman said.
Although the quake hit at 11:02 a.m., the reaction was delayed about 10 minutes until the impact was recorded at the site. The 7.4 magnitude quake caused the water to rise and fall about an inch initially, then became more dramatic.
“Park staff observed algae slough off the walls of the chamber, followed by water bubbles, swooshing sounds and swirling water,” Chipman said. “The water became turbid and the smell of sulfur filled the air. The water level ranged more than five feet in total (2.5 feet in either direction) throughout the event.”
Park Service officials said the rising water level increased, causing waves to rush along the top of a shallow shelf and crash against the adjacent wall. This occurred multiple times with breaks of calmer surges.
In all, the wave action continued for about 20 minutes. Once the water level subsided, pupfish started to return to the shelf. The first fish was a larger male (27mm) who began investigating his new habitat. Soon after, more fish began to appear and spawning behavior was observed.
“Only a small number of people have witnessed earthquake waves at Devils Hole,” Chipman said.
Kevin Wilson, Death Valley aquatic biologist, said, “There are more people that have walked on the moon than have witnessed an earthquake event at Devils Hole.”
Another instance occurred in September 1999 when an earthquake of similar magnitude, also from Oaxaca, was witnessed by park personnel. Wilson doubts that any long-term damage was caused to the pupfish.
To see a video of the Devils Hole “tsunami,” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6h82PIi_-0.

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