Unanticipated Desiccation: Middle East’s Largest Lake Transforms Into Arid Salt Pan

by Liam O'Connor
Lake Urmia Desiccation

As of Autumn 2023, Lake Urmia, located in northwest Iran and previously considered the largest lake in the Middle East, has primarily been reduced to a parched salt pan. While a brief revival occurred in 2020 due to extraordinary rainfall, historical data indicates that the lake has been on a drying trajectory since 1995, losing close to 90% of its surface area.

Merely a few years after water levels in Lake Urmia were replenished, the lake is now almost entirely desiccated.

Lake Urmia in northwest Iran, which witnessed a temporary expansion in water volume a few years prior, had almost evaporated by Autumn 2023. Once the Middle East’s most expansive lake and among the Earth’s largest hypersaline bodies of water, Lake Urmia has largely morphed into an extensive, barren salt flat.

An image of Lake Urmia was obtained by Landsat 9’s Operational Land Imager-2 (OLI-2) on September 7, 2023.

On the mentioned date, a snapshot of the arid lakebed was captured by Landsat 9’s OLI-2. This image presents a stark contrast to a photograph taken three years earlier on September 8, 2020, by Landsat 8’s Operational Land Imager. At that time, the majority of the basin was water-filled, and salt deposits were merely visible at the lake’s edges. The lake’s expansion was the result of a season of above-average rainfall that propelled an inflow of freshwater into the basin. However, subsequent arid conditions have led to a reversion in water levels.

Historical Context and Reasons for Decline

Lake Urmia’s long-term trajectory has been one of progressive desiccation. In 1995, the lake reached its zenith in water level; over the subsequent two decades, it declined by over 7 meters (about 23 feet) and forfeited nearly 90% of its area. A series of droughts, along with water diversion for agricultural purposes and the construction of dams on tributary rivers, have been contributing factors to its decline.

Environmental and Health Ramifications

The diminishing of Lake Urmia has both ecological and public health consequences. The lake, its islands, and adjacent wetlands serve as essential habitats and are designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a Ramsar site, and a national park. This environment offers breeding spaces for waterbirds such as flamingos, white pelicans, and white-headed ducks, as well as a resting place for migratory species. However, the declining water levels have resulted in increased salinity, affecting the availability of food resources like brine shrimp for larger fauna.

The decrease in lake volume also elevates the risk of dust from the exposed lakebed being carried by the wind, thereby diminishing air quality. Recent research has associated the declining water levels in Lake Urmia with adverse respiratory health effects among the local populace.

Discussion on Underlying Causes

The relative impact of climatic conditions, water consumption, and dam construction on the water levels in Lake Urmia continues to be a subject of scholarly discussion. There was a marginal improvement in the lake’s condition during a ten-year restoration program initiated in 2013. Nevertheless, attributing the effectiveness of this initiative is challenging, given that significant rainfall also occurred during this period. Certain studies suggest that climate factors were principally responsible for the lake’s temporary recovery.

Imagery for this report was provided by NASA Earth Observatory, captured by Lauren Dauphin and sourced from Landsat data by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Lake Urmia Desiccation

What is the current status of Lake Urmia in 2023?

Lake Urmia in northwest Iran has almost completely dried up, resembling a vast salt flat by Autumn 2023. This is a significant transformation from its earlier state as the largest lake in the Middle East.

Has Lake Urmia experienced any recent fluctuations in water levels?

Yes, Lake Urmia saw a brief resurgence in 2020 due to unusually high rainfall. However, historical data shows a consistent drying trend since 1995, with the lake losing nearly 90% of its surface area.

What are the main reasons for Lake Urmia’s desiccation?

The desiccation of Lake Urmia can be attributed to consecutive droughts, increased agricultural water usage, and the construction of dams on rivers that feed into the lake. These factors have collectively contributed to the decline in water levels.

What are the environmental implications of Lake Urmia’s shrinking?

The shrinking of Lake Urmia has significant environmental consequences. The lake and its surrounding areas are home to various wildlife and serve as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Ramsar site, and national park. The decline in water levels impacts breeding grounds for waterbirds and increases salinity, affecting food sources for larger animals.

Are there any health concerns associated with the decline of Lake Urmia?

Yes, the diminishing lake raises concerns for public health. Dust from the exposed lakebed can be swept up by winds, potentially degrading air quality. Recent studies have linked low water levels in Lake Urmia with respiratory health issues among the local population.

What factors have contributed to the debate regarding the causes of Lake Urmia’s water level changes?

The causes of Lake Urmia’s water level changes are still a subject of debate. While a 10-year restoration program initiated in 2013 led to some improvement, it coincided with above-average rainfall, making it challenging to determine the exact effectiveness of the initiative. Some studies suggest that climatic factors have played a primary role in the lake’s water level fluctuations.

More about Lake Urmia Desiccation

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CryptoKing123 October 15, 2023 - 2:27 pm

no water, big trouble, dem birds n animals sufferin’, air quality drop, need solution, asap!

JohnDoe October 15, 2023 - 4:27 pm

lake urmia dryin’ out bad, dat ain’t good 4 da enviro or the peeps there. drought, dams, big issues!


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