Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

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.

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

Geographical Week

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

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

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

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...

Cities

New research measures the ability of major cities to re-use…

Deserts

Biosphere 2 was one of the most ambitious experiments in…

Forests

High-quality, affordable drones can revolutionise the way that landscape and…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig charts the impact of volcanoes on nearby human…

Mapping

A volunteer-led digital mapping project is at the heart of…

Cities

As the planet urbanises, attention is turning towards the most…

Forests

Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many…

Cities

A rising number of cruise ships and their ‘overlooked’ diesel…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig charts the growth and impact of the world’s…

Deserts

Long-term studies reveal the Sahara desert has expanded substantially over…

Water

South America’s wealthiest economy is at a crossroads between environmental…

Forests

The European Court of Justice finds the logging of a…

Mountains

In this extract from his new book, Tides, mountain climber…

Cities

New data from the World Health Organization reveals that nine…

Water

In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig maps out the global production and distribution levels…

Water

Millions of Americans are living in areas at high-risk of…

Mapping

New interactive maps combine precipitation and temperature to show climate…

Cities

Public transport in India could be on the verge of…

Water

To retrace the route of the fur voyageurs on the waterways…