Tag Archives: lake

Argentinian lake turns bright pink due to industrial pollution

In Argentina’s southern Patagonia region, you can find a pink lake. It wasn’t always pink, obviously, and local activists blame pollution from fish-preserving industries for the change.

The change in color, according to local environmental engineers, has been caused by sodium sulfite, a salt used as an antibacterial agent in fish factories. Waste from such factories is dumped into the Chubut river that eventually drains into the Corfo lagoon (the one turned pink) and other bodies of water in the region. Locals have also complained repeatedly about the foul smells and environmental concerns they’re seeing around both the river and lagoon for some time now.

Pink as prawns

“Those who should be in control are the ones who authorize the poisoning of people,” environmental activist Pablo Lada told Agence France-Presse (AFP), blaming the government for the mess.

It all started last week when the lagoon’s water started taking on a pink hue. It stayed that way through to the weekend. Environmental engineer and virologist Federico Restrepo explained for AFP that the color is caused by sodium sulfite in fish waste. By law, he adds, this should be removed before any waste can be dumped.

It’s not the first time that the Corfo lagoon changed colors — it previously turned fuchsia due to runoff from the Trelew industrial park.

Fed up with the issue, nearby residents have taken to blocking the roads used by trucks carrying processed fish waste to treatment plants. Dozens of trucks are being turned around every day, according to locals. However, this has led provincial authorities to grant factories in the region permission to dump their waste directly in the lagoon.

“The colouring is due to the preservative, sodium sulphide, an antibacterial agent which also contaminates the water table of the Chubut River and the water supply of cities in the region. The law orders the treatment of such liquids before being dumped,” said Federico Restrepo.

Although the fish processing industry generates thousands of jobs in the region, locals are fed up with their flaunting of environmental regulations. “These are multi-million-dollar profit companies that don’t want to pay freight to take the waste to a treatment plant that already exists in Puerto Madryn, 35 miles away, or build a plant closer,” the AFP cites one local as saying.

Scientists discover huge fossil lake under Greenland

Greenland’s relief is every bit as varied and spectacular as any place on Earth, but we can’t really see it because of all the ice. But if you could peer beneath this ice (say, with satellite radar data), you could see some of this ice-hidden relief. This is exactly how researchers discovered what they believe to be an ancient, ‘fossil’ lake. They think it’s as big as the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, or about a third of Wales.

Depiction of the ancient lake bed (surrounded by a red line) and the river valleys (in yellow). Credits: Paxman et al.

Researchers routinely use satellite data to analyze Greenland. They’re not usually looking for submerged geography, but they’re looking to see how much the ice sheet is thinning. In order to do this, they use airborne geophysical instruments that send radar signals — signals which can penetrate ice but bounce off from the underlying solid surface.

So with this approach, they can catch a glimpse of the geological structure beneath the ice.

“This could be an important repository of information, in a landscape that right now is totally concealed and inaccessible,” said Guy Paxman, a postdocste at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the report. “We’re working to try and understand how the Greenland ice sheet has behaved in the past. It’s important if we want to understand how it will behave in future decades.”

A depiction of the ancient lake and its geologic surroundings. Credits: Paxman et al.

The geomorphological mapping carried out by Paxman and his colleagues suggests more than just an isolated lake: they found evidence of a sprawling network of bedrock channels preserved in the subglacial landscape of northwest Greenland. The channels exhibit steep V-shaped valleys and a complex, branching pattern, all of which are diagnostic characteristics of fluvial valley networks. In other words, what is now covered under a layer of ice was once a thriving river-lake network which may harbor fossils from hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago, researchers believe.

The lake sediments could also hold another piece of valuable evidence: they could show us how and when Greenland became covered in ice. This could help us make better sense of the climate change we’re seeing now and develop better models of how Greenland ice is melting. It’s doable. With the top of the sediments 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) below the current ice surface, drilling to them would be a challenging task, but not an impossible one.

Meanwhile, Greenland’s ice sheet continues to melt at an accelerated pace due to rising temperatures. If it were to melt completely, the sheet has enough ice to raise global sea levels by 7 meters (24 feet). While this won’t happen anytime soon, even a fraction of that would be enough to cause catastrophic damage, displacing billions of people in the process.

The study was published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Why is the ocean salty?

Every time you bathe in the sea, you have geology to thank for the extra buoyancy that salty water provides. Large-scale geological processes bring salt into the oceans and then recycle it deep into the planet. The short answer to ‘why is the ocean salty’ sounds something like this:

Salts eroded from rocks and soil are carried by rivers into the oceans, where salt accumulates. Another source of salts comes from hydrothermal vents, deep down on the surface of the ocean floor. We say “salts” — because the oceans carry several types of salts, not just what we call table salt.

But the longer answer (that follows below) is so much more interesting.

Image credits: Olia Nayda.

In the beginning there was saltiness

As it is so often the case in geology, our story begins with rocks and dirt, and we have to go back in time — a lot. Billions of years ago, during a period called the Archean, our planet was a very different environment than it is today. The atmosphere was different, the landscape was different, but as far as ocean saltiness goes, there may have been more similarities than differences.

Geologists look at ancient rocks that preserved ancient water (and therefore, its ancient salinity); one such study found that Earth’s Archean oceans may have been ~1.2 times saltier than they are today.

At first glance, this sounds pretty weird. Since salt in the seas and oceans is brought in by river runoff and erosion, the salts hadn’t yet had time to accumulate in Earth’s earliest days. So what’s going on?

It is believed that while the very first primeval oceans were less salty than they are today, our oceans have had a significant salinity for billions of years. Although rivers hadn’t had sufficient time to dissolve salts and carry them to oceans, this salinity was driven by the oceanic melting of briny rocks called evaporites, and potentially volcanic activity. It is in this water that the first life forms on Earth emerged and started evolving.

“The ions that were put there long ago have managed to stick around,” says Galen McKinley, a UW-Madison professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. “There is geologic evidence that the saltiness of the water has been the way that it is for at least a billion years.”

The ancient salinity of oceans is still an area of active research with many unknowns. But while we don’t fully understand what’s going on with the ancient oceans, we have a much better understanding of what drives salinity today.

So how do the oceans get salty today?

Salinity map of the world’s oceans. Scale is in parts per thousand. Image credits: NASA.

Oceans today have an average of 3.5% salinity. In other words, 3.5% of the ocean’s weight is made of dissolved salts. Most, but not all of that is sodium chloride (what we call ‘salt‘ in day to day life). Around 10% of the salt ions come from different minerals.

At first glance, 3.5% may not seem that much, but we forget that around 70% of our planet is covered in oceans. If we took all the salt in the ocean and spread it evenly over the land surface, it would form a layer over 500 feet (166 meters) thick — a whopping 40-story building’s height of salt covering the entire planet’s landmass. That’s how much 3.5% means in this particular case.

All these salts come from rocks. Rocks are laden with ionic elements such as sodium, chlorine, and potassium. Much of this material was spewed as magma by massive volcanic eruptions and can form salts under the right conditions.

Because it is slightly acidic, rainwater can slowly dissolve, erode rocks. As it does so, it gathers ions that make up salts and transfers them to streams and rivers. We consider rivers to be “freshwater”, but that’s not technically true: all rivers have some salt dissolved in them, but because they flow, they don’t really accumulate it. Rivers are agents for carrying salts, but they don’t store salts themselves.

The main culprit for why oceans are salty: rivers. Image credits: Jon Flobrant.

Rivers constantly gather more salts, but they constantly push it downstream. Influx from precipitation also ensures that the salt concentration doesn’t increase over time.

Meanwhile, the oceans have no outlet, and while they also have currents and are still dynamic, they have nowhere to send the salts to, so they just accumulate more and more salt. Which leads us to an interesting question.

So, are the oceans getting saltier?

Bodies of water can be classified by their salt content.

No, not really. Although it’s hard to say whether oceans will get saltier in geologic time (ie millions of years), ocean salinity remains generally constant, despite the constant influx of salt.

“Ions aren’t being removed or supplied in an appreciable amount,” says McKinley. “The removal and sources that do exist are so small and the reservoir is so large that those ions just stay in the water.” For example, she says, “Each year, runoff from the land adds only 0.00005 percent of total ocean salts.”

A part of the minerals is used by animals and plants in the water and another part of salts becomes sediment on the ocean floor and is not dissolved. However, the main reason why oceans aren’t getting saltier is once more geological.

The surface of our planet is in a constant state of movement — we call this plate tectonics. Essentially, the Earth’s crust is split into rigid plates that move around at a speed of a few centimeters per year. Some are buried through the process of subduction, taking with them the minerals and salts into the mantle, where they are recycled. The movement of tectonic plates constantly recirculates material from and into the mantle.

Schematic of subduction (and some other associated processes). Image credits: K. D. Schroeder.

With these processes, along with the flow of freshwater, precipitation, and a number of other processes, the salinity of the Earth’s oceans remains relatively stable — the oceans have a stable input and output of salts.

But isolated bodies of water, however, can become extra salty.

Why some lakes are freshwater, and some are *very* salty

Lakes are temporary storage areas for water, and most lakes tend to be freshwater. Rivers and streams bring water to lakes just like they do to oceans, so then why don’t lakes get salty?

Well, lakes are usually only wide depressions in a river channel — there is a water input and a water output, water flows in and it flows out. This is called an open lake, and open lakes are essentially a buffer for rivers, where water accumulates, but it still flows in and out, without salts accumulating. Many lakes are also the result of chaotic drainage patterns left over from the last Ice Age, which makes them very recent in geologic time and salts have not had the time to accumulate.

Beautiful glacial lakes such as this one are the remains of Ice Age melting. Image credits: K. D. Schroeder.

But when a lake has no water output and it has had enough time to accumulate salts, it can become very salty. This is called a closed lake, and closed lakes (and seas) can be very salty, much more so than the planetary oceans. They accumulate salts and lose water through evaporation, which increases the concentration of salts. Closed lakes are pretty much always saline.

We mentioned that world oceans are 3.5% salt on average. The Mediterranean Sea has a salinity of 3.8%. The Red Sea has some areas with salinity over 4%, and Mono Lake in California can have a salinity of 8.8%. But even that isn’t close to the saltiest lakes on Earth. Great Salt Lake in Utah has a whopping salinity of 31.7%, and the pink lake Retba in Senegal, where people have mined salt for centuries, has a salinity that reaches 40% in some points. The saltiest lake we know of is called Gaet’ale Pond — a small, hot pond with a salinity of 43% — a testament to just how saline these isolated bodies of water can get.

Worker digging the salt in Lake Retba. Image in public domain.

It’s important to note that lakes are not stable geologically, and many tend to not last in geologic time. Some of the world’s biggest lakes are drying up, both as a natural process and due to rising temperatures, drought, and agricultural irrigation.

Salt can also come from below

Hydrothermal vent. Image credits: NOAA.

We’ve mentioned that rock weathering and dissolving makes oceans salty, but there is another process: hydrothermal vents.

A part of the ocean water seeps deeper into the crust, becomes hotter, dissolves some minerals, and then flows back into the ocean through these vents. The hot water brings large amounts of minerals and salts. It’s not a one-way process — some of the salts react with the rocks and are removed from seawater, but this process also contributes to salinization.

Lastly, underwater volcanic eruptions can also bring salts from the deeper parts to the surface, affecting the salt content of oceans.

Indian lake turns pink almost overnight

The water of Lonar Crater Lake in India is typically deep-green, but it has recently turned pink — almost overnight — and nobody knows why.

Image credits Maharashtra Tourism / Twitter.

I think it goes without saying that large bodies of water don’t typically just change color, but Lonar Lake did. The Indian landmark was a tourist attraction before, but it has now become a hotbed of visitors eager to see its bright pink waters.

Exactly what caused this change, or why it happened so fast, is as of yet unknown. 

Crater lake

The color change was captured best by two NASA images taken on May 25 and June 10 with the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8. The waters changed color over the span of a few days, according to NASA.

“India’s Lonar Crater began causing confusion soon after it was identified in 1823 by a British officer named C.J.E. Alexander,” NASA says of the crater.

“Lonar Crater sits inside the Deccan Plateau—a massive plain of volcanic basalt rock leftover from eruptions some 65 million years ago. Its location in this basalt field suggested to some geologists that it was a volcanic crater. Today, however, Lonar Crater is understood to result from a meteorite impact that occurred between 35,000 and 50,000 years ago.”

Lonar Lake is located in India’s west-central state of Maharashtra, and it isn’t the only pink lake we know of. Lake Hillier in Australia is permanently pink, with the color likely produced by Halobacteriaceae, pink-colored microorganisms that inhabit its salty waters, and a species of single-cell algae called Dunaliella salina. When stressed, D. salina releases carotenoids (a class of molecules that give plants such as carrots their color), including an orange-red colored one.

But Lake Hillier doesn’t change its color — it’s always pink. One possible explanation of the shift in Lonar Lake could be a rise in salinity due to a long period of warm, dry weather promoting evaporation, as is the case with Lake Urmia in Iran (whose color changes seasonally). In other words, it could be going to a very dramatic and pink algal bloom. A chemically-induced change hasn’t been ruled out yet, however.

Lonar Lake is quite visually striking and remote, and as such is dotted with small temples along its rim. Due to its salinity and alkaline nature, the late doesn’t house much wildlife. It was the discovery of maskelynite (a type of natural glass produced during asteroid impacts) revealed its true origin.

The lake has always been unique, and this change in color only adds to its quirkiness. Exactly what caused this change is still unknown — as is whether the colors will switch back or not. But researchers will undoubtedly try to find out what’s going on here, and will keep the lake under observation while drawing samples to analyze.

Tanzania’s blood-red lake snapped from space by NASA

On March 6, 2017, NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite swooped over Tanzania and snapped some incredible pictures of its ruby-red lake.

Lake Natron.

Click for full resolution.
Image credits NASA Earth Observatory.

Northern Tanzania is home to a beautiful, bloody-crimson body of water known as Lake Natron. Apart from its striking hue, the water also has a high concentration of natural salts, making it very alkaline, up to 10.5 on the pH scale.

So what makes a lake turn ruby-red and almost as caustic as ammonia? Well, it all comes down to the area’s geology, particularly its volcanism. The lake sits about 20km north of Ol Doinyo Lengai, an active volcano that juts out of the surrounding plain. Ol Doinyo Lengai is the only volcano known to have ever released carbonatite lava (poor in silica, rich in carbonate minerals) in human history, which is more chemically similar to sedimentary rocks than other types of lava (which are predominantly silica).

Its products flow, fall, roll, and push through faults all the way to the lake, enriching it in alkaline salts and other material. Waterwise, Lake Natron is chiefly supplied by the Southern Ewaso Ng’iro River and mineral-rich hot springs that are powered by Ol Doinyo’s volcanism. Minerals and salts released by this process, particularly sodium carbonate, push the waters of Lake Natron even higher beyond water’s neutral 7 point mark on the pH scale.

Detail of the lake.
Image modified after NASA Earth Observatory.

These conditions are ripe for holoarchaea, a class of microorganisms which thrives in salty environments. As they multiply, the holoarchaea lend the water its red hue — the rainy seasons in the area runs from March to May and at the time Landsat passed over Lake Natron, the water level was particularly low and the salt ponds were very colorful.

Most animals (us too) can’t handle water as alkaline and salty as this, but Lake Natron is home to a few species which have adapted to withstand the harsh chemical conditions. Flocks of birds often camp on its shores, and tilapia fish brave its briny waters. Flamingos, in particular, favor the area as a nesting site during the dry season, since moat-like channels and the harsh waters make an ideal fortification against predators.

Lake Natron detail.

Image credits NASA Earth Observatory.

The climate here is arid. In a non-El Niño year, the lake receives less than 500 millimeters (20 inches) of rain. Evaporation usually exceeds that amount, so the lake relies on other sources—such as the Ewaso Ng’iro River at the north end—to maintain a supply of water through the dry season.

But it’s the region’s volcanism that leads to the lake’s unusual chemistry. Volcanoes, such as Ol Doinyo Lengai (about 20 kilometers to the south), produce molten mixtures of sodium carbonate and calcium carbonate salts. The mixture moves through the ground via a system of faults and wells up in more than 20 hot springs that ultimately empty into the lake. The lake, however, can be a double-edged sword — as this flamingo can attest.

This salty lake beneath the sea just kills everything inside it

They call it the “Jacuzzi of Despair” and rarely has a name been so fitting.

Image credits: EVNautilus/YouTube.

The ocean can be a very dangerous and surprising place, and sometimes, the water itself is the enemy. Deep beneath the Gulf of Mexico, at about 3,300 feet below the surface (1 km), there’s a lake. Yes, you read that right, there’s a lake in the ocean. But this isn’t just any lake — it has a crazy high salt content, as well as dissolved methane. This means that any critter unfortunate enough to fall into it is killed almost immediately.

Erik Cordes, associate professor of biology at Temple University, has discovered and studied the pool.

“It was one of the most amazing things in the deep sea. You go down into the bottom of the ocean and you are looking at a lake or a river flowing. It feels like you are not on this world”, Cordes told Seeker.

The lake measures 100 feet in circumference and is about 12 feet deep. It was likely formed when fissures in the seafloor allowed the water to seep in and mix with salt. Then, as it interacted with the methane, it started to flow again to the surface, maintaining its salt content. The brine, now four or five times saltier than the water around it, is so dense that it stays on the bottom forming the lake.

Cordes first identified the lake in 2014, when he and his colleagues were studying the area with a remotely operated underwater robot called Hercules. They were tipped by the numerous carcasses around the lake.

“We were able to see the first opening of a canyon,” Cordes says. “We kept up this steep slope and it opened up and we saw all these mud flows. We got closer and we saw the brine falling over this wall like a dam. It was this beautiful pool of red white and black colors.”

You might be asking what sea creatures are doing around the lake anyway – if anything, you’d expect them to keep as far away as possible. The thing is, some creatures do survive in the lake: specially adapted bacteria, shrimp and tube worms thrive in these hellish conditions. There’s a chance that these creatures might attract others, which then succumb to the Jacuzzi of Despair.

Another interesting point is that extraterrestrial life might survive in conditions similar to this. Places like Europa might very well host underwater life in places with high salinity and organic substances.

“There’s a lot of people looking at these extreme habitats on Earth as models for what we might discover when we go to other planets,” Cordes says. “The technology development in the deep sea is definitely going to be applied to the worlds beyond our own.”

This isn’t the world’s only underwater lake by any chance. There are several underwater lakes, especially in the Gulf of Mexico region; they’ve got their own shores and all. The brine water of these lakes actually hosts unique wildlife, creating an absolutely amazing environment.

Florida’s coastlines are choke-full with guacamole-like algae blooms

algae bloom

Credit: Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia

South Florida’s coasts are being choked by smelly, green algae blooms after excess water from Lake Okeechobee was released into the ocean. The lake has been contaminated with unprecedented levels of toxins after the government pumped polluted runoff into it to curb flooding in the area. Residents blame the federal government, state water managers and Florida Gov. Rick Scott for yet another spiraling environmental catastrophe.

First sightings of the blooms were reported in June, and since then they’ve been spreading — prompting the state of Florida to declare a state of emergency for Martin and St. Lucie counties on Wednesday, extended to Palm Beach and Lee counties on the western coast on Tuesday. The algae have given south Florida residents rashes and coughs and are consuming all the oxygen in the water, threatening the bio-diverse area. The scale of the blooms makes them look like oil spills on aerial photographs — only greener, and gooier.

“This is our Deep Water Horizon,” Doug Smith, a commissioner in Martin County, told the Palm Beach Post, referencing the devastating BP oil spill in 2010.

The blooms have grown to huge proportions. Martin, St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties alone stretch for nearly 100 miles along the Atlantic coast, so how did the algae grow so fast? These counties, along with Lee County are all connected through various rivers, canals or estuaries to the state’s largest body of fresh water, Lake Okeechobee.

And this lake seems to be the cause. In the wake of a year with heavy rainfall — enough to cover the city of Delaware in two feet of water — the government was forced to “back-pump” billions of gallons of polluted runoff into the lake to save crops and prevent further flooding. As Lake Okeechobee began to overflow, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped the excess water into the waterways that connect the lake with the coast to protect the neighbouring towns from life-threatening flooding.

But then Lake Okeechobee began to overflow as well, forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with monitoring water levels, to make a tough decision. It could open a series of levees surrounding the lake and dump the excess water into rivers and estuaries that lead to the coast, or it could let the lake continue to rise, putting thousands of people and the towns they live in at risk for life-threatening flooding.

The mineral-rich waters of the lake allowed the algae to bloom uncontrollably, and now the area’s ecosystems are buckling under their weight. In the Executive Order he issued Thursday to declare a state of emergency, governor Rick Scott blamed the federal government for the crisis.

The lake is surrounded by the Herbert Hoover Dike, a wall of natural materials like soil, rock and shells, that has fallen into disrepair. It was designed for a water level of 18 feet above sea level but to prevent a breach, the Corps of Engineers tries to maintain the water level between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level, the Washington Post writes.

“[Had funding been provided] the Corps would not have been required to discharge approximately 30 billion gallons of flood waters from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and estuaries,” the governor said in his executive order.

But as he has yet to visit the area himself, residents are blaming the governor and his administration for not doing enough to solve the problem. Together with Martin County commissioners, they’ve called on the Corps of Engineers to reduce the flow of water it has been pumping out of Lake Okeechobee, and recently gained support from Florida senators. The Corps announced it would begin a “pulse release” that will reduce output levels.

“… After visiting with local elected officials in Martin County yesterday and viewing the algae first hand, we felt compelled to take action, even though we need to remain vigilant in managing the level of Lake Okeechobee,” Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander, said in a press release.

Following a visit in the area this week, Sen. Nelson said the issue shouldn’t fall just on the shoulders of the federal government. He called on the state legislature to spend money on environmental projects already approved by Florida voters, reported the WP, including the purchase of land surrounding Lake Okeechobee for water storage instead of diverting funds to pay for administrative costs.

I would urge everyone to remember that the first priority shouldn’t be to decide who’s at fault for this situation, but figuring out how to go about fixing it. There’s enough time for finger pointing after the ocean stops looking like chunky guacamole.


Join the great Californian Trash Treasure Hunt, and help keep the ocean clean

Ok ok it’s not technically called that, but the California Costal Cleanup Day is definitely something you should check out this Saturday if you like finding cool stuff and wish your beach looked less….garbage-y.

For 31 years now, thousands of volunteers all over the world come together, put on the strongest pair of gloves they can find, and go scour the coast, lakes, rivers and their surroundings, picking up what we throw out the rest of the year.

Image via coastal.ca.gov

The Cleanup Day – put on by the California Coastal Commission – draws nearly 60,000 people each year. In Orange County alone, 7,053 volunteers picked up a staggering 64,037 pounds of trash and 3,636 pounds of recyclables last year. It’s quite an impressive event, even being hailed as Guinness World Record’s “largest garbage collection”.

Statewide, about 1.2 million pounds of trash and recyclables were removed from California’s beaches, lakes, and waterways last year. Volunteers included families, community groups, corporate sponsors and lone do-gooders hoping to help.

After each clean-up session, volunteers are given data cards to help keep track of and tally the “harvest”, with the data being fed to the Coastal Commission. Up to now, the most bountiful of all items found are cigarette buds, accounting for almost 40 percent of the debris picked up since the Day was first organised, they report.

Even if styrofoam, cigarette butts and plastic debris are collected by the truck-load each year, there have been a lot of unexpected finds among them. Last year’s more spectacular “spoils” included an E.T. doll, a partially burned bike, a fake mustache, a prom dress in and even a bottle of medical marijuana – with some of the health boosting herb still inside.

If you’re aiming to get more than your feet wet, you can join the efforts of Dana West Marina in Dana Point, where about 90 divers will be pulling up trash from the bottom of the harbor – however, you’ll need a diver’s certificate to be able to join.

 “We should find some interesting stuff,” said Kelly Rinderknecht, organizer of the underwater effort.

Other sites in Dana Point include: Ocean Institute/Dana Point Marine Protected Area; Dana Point Yacht Club on-the-water Kayak Clean Up; Doheny State Beach and San Juan Creek; Salt Creek/Strand Beach; Dana Point Harbor Cigarette Butt Round-Up; and Capistrano Beach.

The California Coastal Commission agency aims to enforce the California Coastal Act of 1976, which extended the commission’s authority to protect the California coastline. It also strives to educate the public about environmental conservation and getting them involved with coastal stewardship.


To volunteer, go to: coastal.ca.gov

Scientists unravel mystery of Greenland lakes: they’re sinking

Geoscientists have finally unraveled one of Greenland’s long-standing mysteries: how billions of gallons of water can drain in a matter of hours. They believe that this might also help us better understand how sea levels will rise in the future.

Greenland’s superglacial lakes. Image via Washington University.

Every summer, Greenland’s ice starts to melt and “pockets” of water start to form – I use the quotes because these pockets can reach enormous sizes. They are basically large lakes, superglacial lakes (because they form on ice). In 2006, Greenland’s North Lake, a 2.2 square-mile (5.6 square kilometers) “pocket” lost almost 12 billion gallons of water in less than two hours, and researchers couldn’t figure out where all the water went. This is not a singular case; similar drains have been observed several times across Greenland’s surface. Now researchers at MIT, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) claim they’ve finally cracked that mystery.

“We’ve found a mechanism that demystifies what’s happening.” The lead study goes on to say, “We know that the ice sheet will continue to increase its contribution to sea level rise over the coming years. The implications of this study show us more of how these processes will play out.”

It was clear that the water has to seep through some fractures in the ice, but it was not known what causes these fractures. Ironically, it’s actually the water. In this new study used GPS technology and found that the hydro-fractures form from tension-related stress caused by movements of the ice sheet. These movements are, in turn, triggered by the trickling meltwater.When summer comes, meltwater drains to the bed from the ice surface through crevasses or moulins and it causes the area within and around the basin to “jack up”; it also decreases the surface area of the ice-sheet bed that’s in contact with the underlying bedrock, acting like a lubricant for the entire lakebed.

“We found that before we get the main expression of the lake drainage, there is a period of time (about six to 12 hours) where uplift and slip increase,” said Laura Stevens, a glaciology doctoral candidate with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (MIT-WHOI) Joint Program. “That motion is enough to take the surface of the ice sheet and put portions of it in high tension that allows cracks to start forming.”

While most of Greenland’s superglacial lakes drain slowly, some 13% of them drain quickly, vanishing in less a day.

“The images would show the lake there one day, and gone the next day,” said first author of the new study, Stevens adds. “So we’ve known for the last 10 to 15 years that the water could disappear quickly.”

A supraglacial lake on the western margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
Credit: Laura A. Stevens

There is more to this study than just understanding the glacial dynamics that enable fast drainage – this could have implications for global sea levels.

“It is critical to understand how and why these lakes drain in order to predict how much mass the ice sheet will contribute to sea-level rise in our warming climate,” Stevens says. “We find that while lakes are forming inland, they probably won’t drain by this … mechanism. The inland lakes will more likely drain their water via surface stream runoff, which transfers the water to the bed in more coastal areas of the ice sheet. So, while we see inland ice beginning to speed up as more melt happens inland, the draining of inland lakes likely won’t exacerbate the situation.”

While there are no definite results at the moment, it seems that this process won’t actually affect sea-level rise, but it could enable researchers to develop better climate models.

Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University who was not involved in the research thinks this may be especially useful.

“For Greenland, the worst possible case won’t be quite as bad as people might have thought,” says Alley, who was not involved in the research. “I think that the big contribution here is to other scientists in the field; we will use these interesting and useful results to improve models and projections, and to guide further research.”

Mysterious Oregon Lake Disappears into Lava Tunnel

Every year, in Oregon, a mysterious lake fills up with snow melt, and then every year it disappears; it’s a natural wonder that had many scientists puzzled as to where the water is going, but now, the mystery is out: the water appears to go into a lava tube.

An entire lake floods then vanishes every year in Oregon.


They call it the Lost Lake, and for good reason – the water just seems to vanish. As it turns out, the explanation is quite simple, though really cool: the area’s geological landscape is to blame for this phenomenon, as the water simply seeps into a lava tube.

Lava tubes are natural channel-like features formed by flowing lava which moves beneath the hardened surface of a lava flow. Tubes can be actively draining lava from a volcano during an eruption, or can be extinct, meaning the lava flow has ceased and the rock has cooled; this seems to be the case in Oregon.

As the snows in the Mount Hood National Forest start to melt, the lake starts to fill with water, but the inlet that connects the lake to the lava tube is still frozen. However, as temperatures continue to rise, the frozen inlet also melts, and the water has a free passage to the lava tube. It’s a pretty neat coincidence, and one that attracts numerous tourists.

The inlet through which water runs into the lava tube.


Unfortunately, tourists have been throwing all sorts of things into the lake, something which Jude McHugh, a spokesperson for Willamette National Forest has advised against.

“If anyone was ever successful at plugging it, which we’re not sure they could do, it would just result in the lake flooding, and the road,” she said. “It’s an important part of how the road was designed.”

This video, shot by the Bend Bulletin, actually shows the lava tube lapping up the water, a process that continues until all the water in the lake disappears.

lake vostok drilling

Subglacial lake surface reached after drilling through 4km of Antarctic ice – ‘alien life’ expected

It took 30 years, an enormous amount of effort and patience, and drilling through 3,768 meters of thick ice for scientists to finally reach the surface of the Vostok, a unique subglacial lake. Just as large as the great Ontario lake, the Vostok is thought to be 20 million years old, and due to the fact that it’s been completely isolated from the outside world, researchers believe the lake might provide invaluable information on what to expect from an alien world. Who here senses a bit of “The Thing“-induced paranoia?

lake vostok drilling Hailed as one of the greatest geographical discoveries of modern times, the Vostok lake is considered to be a completely unique formation. Drilling first began around the Vostok Station in the Antarctic in the 1970s, but curiously enough, it was only in 1996 that Russian and British scientists discovered with sonar and satellite imaging what later proved to be one of the world’s largest freshwater reservoirs. Well, it’s not like they could’ve missed it, since it’s the size of Ontario lake.

In 1998, just 130 meters away from the lake’s surface, drilling had to be stopped. You can’t just go through with your more or less typical oil rig drill through such a delicate, and completely unknown environment. Contamination is bound to happen, and it’s enough for just a few traces of bacteria to interact with the lake to ruin everything, although few survive at Arctic temperatures. More relevant, subtle technology was needed and it eventually came in 2003, after it was developed at St. Petersburg. Work resumed in 2005 after tests.

What the scientists are especially interested in are signs of life. If lake Vostok truly is a closed system, completely isolated from the outside world, and life is found, then it will certainly provide some great insights into our planet’s past. On the contrary, if the lake is completely and utterly dead, than it will aid scientists understand how to search for extra-terrestrial life on future space trips.

Lake Vostok is believed to house the cleanest water on the planet – twice cleaner than double-distilled water.


Wisconsin Dells lake just… dissapeared


Photo by the Chicago Tribune

But there’s nothing abnormal about that, there’s a perfectly rational explanation for that. That doesn’t make it any less saddening though. Here’s what happened to one of the most scenic getaways for Chicagoans.

During the weekend, rained settled in over the surroundings of the lake; and it’s not just your average spring rain… it was way bigger than that. There was so much water that the lake practically burst its banks, releasing tens of thousands of lake water.On its path, the water took with it a roadway, several houses, boats, fish and lake bed.

It stopped just before Wisconsin river, but it was gone in a matter of hours. Now, about a day later, the lake is drained. It offers a desolating muddy landscape with fish that flap in the mud until they can move now more. Mounds of dead fish are piled high. The shoreline is jagged and cracked.

“Just this weekend it was full of fish, full of boaters, full of life and now it’s gone,” said Harland Tourdoy who has been fishing these waters for a half-century.

Is there something that can be done? I have no idea, but authorities could show a bit more interest in this matter, and save whatever’s left that can be saved.