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The Daunting Lake of Natron

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

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Lake Natron, found in a dry, northern part of Tanzania, is like no other lake you’ve ever seen or heard about. Or perhaps even imagined. Why? Well, for starters, parts of it sometimes turn red! And we bet you’ve never seen a red lake before.

Natron lake is one of the salt lakes that is situated in Tanzania in Africa and holds international significance. The lake is shallow and has a depth of fewer than three meters and it is 57 kilometres long and 22 kilometres wide.

The surrounding places of this lake receive seasonal rainfall between the months December and May in an irregular manner.

We all know about the Greek monster Medusa, whose deadly gaze turned men to stone. That’s a legend, but this lake does just that. It is a death trap for birds as it calcifies their outsides and insides, turning them into mummies…So what is the mystery behind a lake turning birds into mummies? Let’s read further to find out.


The Mystery Story of the Lake

This lake undergoes a high rate of evaporation which leaves behind natron (sodium carbonate decahydrate) and trona (sodium sesquicarbonate hydrate) which are the reason for the alkaline nature of the lake and the pH of it can reach greater than 12.

The bedrock of the surrounding is also alkaline and the lavas have very low levels of calcium and magnesium but have quite amounts of carbonates in them. These properties all constitute the alkaline behavior of the Natron lake.

In this salt lake, the water is not able to flow out and so the evaporation process is the only method for the water to escape out from there. The temperature of the lake is high and is almost up to 140 F.

The lake’s salinity has welcomed salt-consuming, halophilic microorganisms called cyanobacteria, which need photosynthesis to survive. Generally, cyanobacteria carry different pigments. In Lake Natron, their pigment paints the water a striking red.

Somehow, a few species of fish, invertebrates, and algae manage to live in the lake. Some alkaline tilapia (a member of the cichlid family) can sustain themselves in the cooler parts of the lake.

But to some wildlife, especially birds like we said before, Lake Natron can be a death trap. The mirror-like surface tricks them into diving into the red waters for food. They drown in the toxic potion, and their outsides and insides calcify.

Wildlife photographer Nick Brandt made headlines in 2013 by staging photos of the mummified remains of the poor creatures around Lake Natron. The graphically eerie positions looked like the finger of Medusa had really touched them. The lake doesn’t quite have that instant effect.


Is Lake Natron Suitable For Animals?

This lake Natron in Tanzania is not suitable for most of the animals that exist as they might not be able to adapt to the situations and conditions of the place like high temperature, high saline content, and high pH value.

But there are some species of animals including birds, invertebrates, and endemic algae which have the tolerance to even these harsh conditions.


A Flamingo Paradise

One bird species has managed to make Lake Natron its home without any trouble. More than 2.5 million endangered Lesser Flamingos breed here. Seventy-five percent of the world’s population are born on its shores.

The flamingos have to contend with no predators, and they feed on the algae and cyanobacteria. They filter out the salt through the glands in the head and can deal with the scalding waters. They normally keep to the cooler areas but can wade into the hot soup if they have to. Their skin is tough enough to prevent burns.


Can Humans Survive the Lake’s Ability of Calcification?

For most humans, the lake’s qualities are more suitable for the dead than the living. The ancient Egyptians used sodium carbonate and bicarbonate in the mummification process. Lake Natron would have saved pharaonic embalmers a lot of work.

People have occasionally survived the lake’s potency. In 2007, a helicopter carrying a group of wildlife videographers wishing to get footage of the flamingos crashed into the lake. It ended up nose-first in the water. Everyone survived the crash but they were in the water unprotected. It burned their eyes and skin, but they managed to drag themselves ashore. Here, some local people helped them. If they spent any longer in the lake, they would have died.


Lake Natron Under Threat?

Currently, Lake Natron is under threat. The proposed construction of a hydroelectric plant on the Ewaso Ng’iro River and a soda ash plant on its shores threatens the lake’s salinity and the flamingos. While this lake remains deadly to most, it is still a vital ecosystem.

Ewaso Ng’iro River Delta




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