The strong 2015/16 El Niño phenomenon – now breaking records for highest average sea surface temperatures ever recorded in the Pacific – has had dramatic effects around the world, including severe drought across South and East Africa, as well as Australia and Southeast Asia. But there can be few clearer visualisations of its influence than the current state of Lake Poopó, one of South America’s largest salt-water lakes, located high up in the Bolivian Andes. Recognised as one of Bolivia’s eleven RAMSAR sites, Lake Poopó is normally abundant with endangered and endemic wildlife, supporting thousands of flamingos and other migratory birds, as well as two pre-Hispanic cultures, the Aymaras and the Urus. However, the lake bed is currently completely dry.
The recent El Niño has replaced the region’s three-month wet season – which should have started in December – with a long, persistent drought. Several major Bolivian cities have recorded record temperatures for the time of year, including 26.5°C in the capital La Paz, way above the city’s 17°C average.
Satellite images from NASA show how, as recently as three years ago Lake Poopó covered an area of 3,000 square kilometres (1,200 square miles). But, with seasonal rains unable to replenish it, the lake has now disappeared entirely, rendering local people’s fishing boats – their central source of income – completely useless.
This isn’t the first time such an event has occurred. In normal circumstances, the lake is kept topped up primarily through runoff from its larger neighbour, Lake Titicaca, via the Desaguadero River. The lake’s unique geographical position, 11,000 feet above sea level, means it rarely retains enough water to get more than 3m deep, even in seasons with high precipitation. This leaves it vulnerable to seasonal variations, and in years when the depth falls below 1m during the wet season, it can dry out completely once the rain stops.
A dry lake bed was last observed in 1994 – an occasion in which the water didn’t return to the lake in any substantial way for over three years – and previous studies by scientists from Lund University, Sweden, also suggest that similar events occurred in the 1940s and 1970s. Indeed, the response by Bolivian President Evo Morales to the current situation was to claim it to be nothing new. ‘My father told me about crossing the lake on a bicycle once when it dried up,’ he recently quipped.
Nevertheless, with reports of illegal miners in the area siphoning off water and accelerating the drying up of the lake, as well as studies showing evidence of heavy metals leaching into the water, the environmental situation remains concerning for Lake Poopó, even if the water does eventually return.
This was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.