Bolivia has lost an entire lake

NASA satellite images show the dried up basin of Lake Poopó NASA satellite images show the dried up basin of Lake Poopó NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen
02 Mar
2016
Lake Poopó in Bolivia, has rapidly dried up, decimating local communities. Where did the water go, and will it ever return?

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.

poopoWetter times: Lake Poopó in 2013 (Image: NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen)

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.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Leave a comment

ONLY registered members can leave comments and each comment is held pending authorisation before publishing. Please login or register to voice your opinion.

EMAIL NEWSLETTER

Get the best stories from Geographical delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Long live the King
    It is barely half a century since the Born Free story caused the world to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with lions. A few brief decades later,...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital has a green future, ...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Water

Following the recent success of New Zealand’s Whanganui river, India’s…

Forests

The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)…

Mapping

Where are Europe's earthquakes located? Benjamin Hennig maps the answer

Forests

Was last year’s El Niño a practice run for future…

Forests

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Mapping

Drought in the region is turning to full famine –…

Water

After decades of neglect, a major clean-up of Lake Titicaca…

Forests

What was once one of Botswana’s most iconic pieces of…

Forests

The world’s largest tropical peatland carbon store has been mapped…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig visualises how the world has moved to the…

Cities

They have been in place for nearly a decade, but…

Cities

As Paris continues to combat its severe air pollution problem,…

Mapping

Which are the world's happiest countries? Benjamin Hennig maps the…

Mapping

New Zealand, Australia, and other former British colonies among the…

Cities

Thirty years ago, the world bore witness to one of…

Mapping

From the clothes you are wearing, to the shoes on…

Mapping

As Geographical takes a look at the geopolitical state of…

Mapping

New 3D maps reveal the extent of a near-invisible threat:…

Mapping

A stunning interactive map shows a year in the life…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig gets to grips with the increasingly globalised world…