9 August 2013

The Tufa Towers of Mono Lake

Mono Lake in California is a strange place to say the least. However, unlike many bizarre places in the world this strange environment is caused by us.

In the early nineteen forties the city of Los Angeles was growing quickly. The Second World War was in full flow and when it came to the environment it was felt that some things could be neglected. The LA Department of Water and Power began diverting the lakes streams three hundred and fifty miles to the south. The damage to the environment would be untold. Paradoxically it would leave the area eerily beautiful – like some alien backdrop from an episode of Star Trek.  At some points in the year a soap-like layer forms on the top of the lake.

The tufa rock formations eventually became visible. This is a sedimentary rock that is formed by carbonate materials. Once underwater the tufa became a land bridge for animals to the lake’s islands. They also give the lake it other worldly look. So, although the tufa towers are natural, the fact that they are so visible above the surface of the lake is entirely our doing. It soon became obvious that the lake was beginning to die.

Image Credit Flickr User squirmelia
Image Credit Flickr User Brian Tobin
Kirk and his comrades were nowhere to be seen to save the day, however. Without its freshwater sources the volume of the lake fell by over fifty percent. Ecosystems which had taken thousands of years to evolve were unable to take such a swift and abrupt change. Within years they had begun to collapse at the depth of the lake had dropped by twenty five feet – vertically. This meant that many of the tufa towers were now on dry land - looking like bizarre stone cacti.

Image Credit Flickr User fxp
Image Credit Flickr User squirmelia
There had been a number of islands in the lake and they now became peninsulas which could be reached by mammals and reptiles. This meant that the birds that nested there (and of course their eggs) were now predated by the new visitors.

Image Credit Flickr User Satosphere
Image Credit Flickr User Sandy Redding
The brine shrimp that once filled the lake became scarce as their reproductive capabilities were reduced by the increase of salt in the lake. At the same time algae levels were reduced and it looked very much as if the lake would become a danger to the public. The particulate matter at its base became air borne and toxic.

Image Credit Flickr User the_lazy_daisy
Image Credit Flickr User squirmelia
Fortunately, the people who lived near the lake started to pay attention. By 1978 David Gaines had formed the Mono Lake Committee and this action group has led the fight to protect the lake ever since, with many landmark achievements along the way.

Image Credit Flickr User sbisson
Image Credit Flickr User sbisson
These are battles worth fighting. The area contains fourteen different ecological zones, around four hundred vertebrate species and over a thousand plant species within its watershed. As such it is one of the richest nature areas in the State of California. The lake is at least three quarters of a million years old and is thought by many to be up to three million years old. That would make it among the oldest lakes in the US.

Image Credit Flickr User webmink
Image Credit Flickr User webmink
Due to the efforts of the Mono Lake Committee, the California State Water Resources Control Board was made to issue a protection order on the lake in 1994. Since then its level has, little by little, risen. In the forties the level was 6417 feet above sea level. It now stands at around 6392 feet. However the level has been difficult to sustain due to the recent drought years in California.

Image Credit Flickr User MiguelVieira
Image Credit Flickr User sskennel
However, a lake thirty feet below its natural level is much better than one which has been reduced to a dry bed – the fate that befell the local Owens Lake. Mono Lake perseveres.

Image Credit Flickr User bobosh_t
This article originally appeared on Kuriositas on December 14 2010. It's the summer - expect re-runs (new pictures, however!).

First Image Credit Flickr User Alaskan Dude