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Lake Waiau in Hawaii shrunk to the size of a pond in just a few years. Scientists still aren't sure why the lake began to dry up. (USGS)

A World of Vanishing Lakes

From the Dead Sea to a Louisiana lake that was sucked into the Earth, the stories behind the disappearances are varied

smithsonian.com

A large body of water like a lake would seem to be a permanent fixture of the landscape, but that’s not always the case.

Some lakes naturally come and go from year to year, as the flow of water into and out of them changes throughout the months. For others, though, once they are gone, they are gone forever. Climate change is a worry for some places, such as subarctic lakes that are dependent on snowmelt.

The reasons behind lake disappearances are varied. Here are nine lakes that no longer exist or are in danger of disappearing:

Lake Urmia, Iran

This saltwater lake, located in the northwest corner of Iran, was once that nation's largest, but it has quickly retreated from its shores. Climate change, wasteful irrigation practices (freshwater is diverted before it reaches the lake) and groundwater depletion account for a large portion of the water loss.

In addition, dams have cut off much of the supply of new water to the lake. “There are just too many people nowadays, and everybody needs to use the water and the electricity the dams generate,” one official, Hamid Ranaghadr, told the New York Times last week.

Only about five percent of the water in the lake remains compared to its volume about 20 years ago, according to figures from local environmental officials.

Lake Waiau, Hawaii

Lake Waiau was never a very big lake. Hawaii’s only alpine lake measured just 6,900 square meters at its maximum and 3 meters in depth. But it was considered sacred to native Hawaiians. According to myth, the lake was bottomless and a portal to the spirit world.

But in early 2010, the lake started to shrink, and by September 2013, the lake was little more than a pond, covering a mere 115 square meters and reaching a depth of less than 30 centimeters. Such a decline is “unprecedented in modern times,” the U.S. Geological Survey reported last year. The cause of the lake’s decline is currently unknown, but drought is among the suspects.

Dead Sea; Israel, the West Bank and Jordan

The Dead Sea is really a lake fed by the Jordan River. There’s no outlet to the ocean, though, so the lake is salty10 times saltier than the north Atlantic and inhospitable to most life other than microbes and human bathers.

The Dead Sea has persisted for thousands of years because the amount of water going into the lake has been more or less equal to the amount that evaporates from it. But as the region’s population has grown, that equation has come unbalanced. Water that once would have flown into the Dead Sea has instead been diverted to supply people’s homes and water-intensive businesses, such as chemical and potash companies. With less than a tenth of the water entering the lake now compared with several decades ago, the Dead Sea’s water level is dropping by about a meter a year.

Scott Lake, Florida

This central Florida lake drained away in just two weeks in June 2006 when a sinkhole opened up. Scientists estimate that 32 tons of wildlife were sucked into the Earth; some fish were left behind to rot on the exposed lake bottom.

Nearby residents considered efforts to plug the hole, but time took care of the problem for them. With the sinkhole now naturally plugged back up with clay and silt, it's starting to fill with water and gradually the lake is returning. But Florida’s geology makes the state prone to sinkholes, so the lake’s permanence is not guaranteed.

Aral Sea
Between 1989 (left) and 2008 (right), the Aral Sea shrunk considerable. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Wikimedia

Aral Sea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

The Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest salt lake until it began shrinking in the last quarter of the 20th century. Since that time, ninety percent of the river flow from the Tian Shan Mountains into the lake has been diverted to irrigate rice and cotton fields planted in desert lands. As a result, the lake’s water level quickly began to drop. Fishing in the lake has ceased, and shipping has declined. And the exposed lake bottom has become a source of salt that is carried by winds across a radius of 300 kilometers and pollutes agricultural lands.

Lake Peigneur, Louisiana

Disaster struck this lake on November 20, 1980, when a Texaco oil rig accidentally punctured the roof of a salt mine. The lake—along with the drilling platform, 11 barges and many trees—were quickly sucked below through what was described as a giant whirlpool. “It was like watching a science fiction movie,” Virlie Langlinais told Mother Jones last year. Surprisingly, no one was injured or killed in the incident. Drained of its freshwater, the lake was refilled with salt water from nearby Vermilion Bay, temporarily creating the state’s largest waterfall.

Lake Cachet 2, Chile

This lake, high in the Andes, disappeared overnight on March 31, 2012. But that wasn’t all that unusual for the lake, at least not lately—it’s disappeared and refilled multiple times since 2008. The lake is a glacial lake, dammed in by the Colonia glacier. Climate change has been thinning the glacier, which has allowed a tunnel eight kilometers beneath to repeatedly open and close, draining the lake and letting it refill many times over. Prior to 2008, the lake was relatively stable.

Cachuma Lake, California

This southern California lake, located near Santa Barbara, is a popular recreation spot and a critical source of drinking water for 200,000 people. But the lake is now at just 39.7 percent of capacity. California is in the midst of a devastating drought that’s not expected to end anytime soon, and Cachuma Lake’s future remains in question.

Lake Chad; Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria

Once the world’s sixth largest lake, Lake Chad has lost 90 percent of its area since it began shrinking in the 1960s. Persistent drought, water withdrawals for irrigation and other human uses, and climate variability have worked in concert to drain the lake. "The changes in the lake have contributed to local lack of water, crop failures, livestock deaths, collapsed fisheries, soil salinity, and increasing poverty throughout the region," according to a 2008 report from the United Nations Environment Programme.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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