Shipwreck near the Hurghada marina

Article: Wired on the Salton Sea

Did you know that there is a 24 by 56 kilometre (approximately) body of water in southern California that was created in an accidental flood in 1905? Nor did I. It’s called the Salton Sea, and I learned about it from an article on (and some supplementary googling).

The Salton Sea lies about 70 metres below sea level. Its maximum depth is 16 metres. The sea was created as a result of an engineering accident during efforts to divert part of the Colorado River into canals that fed arid areas. The new body of water achieved some success in the 1950s as a leisure venue where watersports and sport fishing took place, but it is as a bird and wildlife habitat that the Salton Sea is most renowned. Over 400 species have been documented there, and many migratory birds pause their journeys at the sea.

Very little water flows into the sea, and none flows out. This has caused increasing salinity of its water, which is currently 50% saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Surprisingly, a fish called tilapia (I think we might have seen a type of tilapia while diving at Marico Oog) thrives there, despite the stresses of an increasingly salty environment, algal blooms owing to fertiliser runoff into the sea, and extremes of temperature in summer and winter. Bacteria consuming the summer algal blooms deplete the oxygen in the water and suffocate the fish, which die suddenly and in startlingly large numbers.

The area undergoes massive and rapid changes, flip flopping from one unstable state to another. In a sense, this is all natural – there has been little human interference in the Salton Sea’s ecosystem (apart from the fertiliser runoff that occasionally enters the water) and the rapid transitions speak of the sensitivity of the ecosystem rather than rampant human-caused destruction. Despite the gruesomeness and the resulting stench, the mass fish mortalities have their use – their decomposing bodies add to the nutrients in the sea and support other forms of life.

With almost no inflow, the water in the Salton Sea is gradually evaporating, adding to its salinity and exposing areas of land which are saturated with a century’s worth of agricultural chemicals. The chemical-infused grit becomes airborne when the wind blows, and cause respiratory and other health problems among the residents of the surrounding areas. Left alone, this by-product of the drying Salton Sea will only increase in volume and severity.

There have been various plans and attempts to “save” the Salton Sea, all of them wildly expensive. Some proposals have been to construct canals to the Gulf of California or to the Pacific, to establish water circulation into the sea. Others propose desalination plants on the sea shore. The Salton Sea Authority aims to preserve the Salton Sea and stabilise it, with current preferred method being the creation of a large seawater dam covering much of the current Salton Sea area. Here is a link to a full analysis and proposed restoration plan. None of the proposals are simple or cheap – a massive engineering feat is required, whatever solution is ultimately pursued.

Looking beyond the complexities of its management and the expensive decisions required about its future, the Salton Sea is a strikingly beautiful and curious place. There are some amazing photos here and some others here, and a National Geographic article about the sea here.

The Salton Sea is a fascinating case study of how complicated the outcomes can be when human constructs (deliberate or – as in this case – accidental) interact with natural processes. River estuaries are an example of an existing habitat or structure that can be irreparably altered by relatively small actions such as closing part of the river mouth. It is too difficult to predict the consequences of such changes to places that have formed naturally over thousands of years, and usually almost impossible to reverse these. Beach erosion and sand dune build up or movement may be the result of the construction of a jetty or tidal pool, diverting the power of the waves to another, unforseen location. The speed at which the Salton Sea has evolved is fascinating, and the apocalyptic natural events that mark its history – colossal algal blooms, rampant fish and avian deaths, and catastrophic evaporation – are salutory warnings of how violently unpredictable nature can be.

The full article from Wired is here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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