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Satellite Images Just Revealed That Turkey's Second Largest Lake Is Gone

Leaving only a vast expanse of salt behind.

Satellite Images Just Revealed That Turkey's Second Largest Lake Is Gone
The drought in Lake Tuz, Turkey. European Union / Copernicus Sentinel-2

The Earth is changing, and life is changing along with it.

New satellite imagery of Turkey's Lake Tuz is colorful, inspiring, but also deeply concerning. Snapped by the European Space Agency's Sentinel-2 satellite, what was once Turkey's second-largest lake has completely dried up in just one year, according to an initial report from Gizmodo.

Leaving only a vast horizon of salt behind.

250 million tons of salt reserves at stake

Lake Tuz was one of the largest saltwater lakes in the world, and it typically swells and recedes as the seasons change. But the receding portion of the cycle has become more dominant in recent years, leaving less and less water behind, until the effects of agriculture, compounded by climate change, left only an expanse of waterless salt in its wake. The image at the top was processed by the EU Copernicus Program, and exposes the haunting state of Lake Tuz in 2021. Lake Tuz, like other salt lakes, are created when a lakebed traps in-flowing water. This water brings in salt and other minerals from streams and rivers, and then evaporates, leaving non-water materials behind. Lake Tuz forms when rainwater and snowmelt flow into the lake every spring.

While it's a shallow lake with depths of just 3 ft (1 m), more water is evaporating than previously did, leaving 3 inches (8 cm) of salt behind. This excess residue has fueled a colossal local industry in the region: salt mining, which pulls from Lake Tuz's roughly 250 million tons of salt reserves (making it one of the saltiest lakes on Earth). A website in the salt mining industry places the Turkish lake's salt percentage at 32%. Notably, this lake provides an incredible 60% of the salt used in the country, and much of it is exported to 60 other countries. But like every other resource, it isn't infinite.

There's no time to lose

Lake Tuz's salt deposits require a recurring flow of water, but with the waters receding in recent years, the salt exports could slow. The cause behind this is twofold: climate change, and a major drought affecting the water supply, in addition to increased pressure on agriculture and industries, which redirect a lot of the water before it can even soak the salt. A 2007 study revealed that Lake Tuz is just half of the size it was 40 years ago. Half! Understandably, the local wildlife, too, has taken a toll from the change. Lake Tuz is a candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and provides a crucial habitat for several bird species. In the summer of this year, the Turkish government said roughly 1,000 young birds had died because of the low water levels, with only 5,000 hatchings — far fewer than the 12,000 in 2018, said environmentalists, according to the Gizmodo report.

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If substantial actions aren't taken to preserve the lake, it could disappear forever within 30 years, said a faculty of natural sciences and geoengineering named Muazzez Çelik Karakaya at Konya Technical University, in a report from a Turkish news outlet. "As water decreases due to global warming, salt precipitation will also decrease," said Karakaya. "This will have negative cultural consequences. Because more than a hundred bird species live in the region. If salt precipitation does not occur as the water decreases, a clayey sediment area will form on the surface of the lake. This means carrying a lot of dust, which can lead to many respiratory diseases." This means local and global forces, both public and private, have no time to lose.

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