One of the World’s Most Iconic Salt Lakes Has Dried Up

One of the World’s Most Iconic Salt Lakes Has Dried Up
People stroll at Lake Tuz in Turkey's Ankara province, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP)

One of Turkey’s most famous lakes has completely receded this year. The transformation of an entire lake into a few puddles is based on satellite data shows, and experts say it’s driven by both climate change and human overuse.

The fate of Lake Tuz — and the iconic flamingo species that live there — is intensely intertwined with how the climate crisis is colliding with agriculture and industrialisation. And striking images reveal what remains of a vital ecological resource.

Flamingoes At Risk

An aerial view of Lake Tuz in Aksaray province, Turkey, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.  (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP) An aerial view of Lake Tuz in Aksaray province, Turkey, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP)

Lake Tuz, which translates to “Salt Lake” in Turkish, is the second-largest lake in Turkey. It measures 91,665 square kilometers). It’s a popular tourist destination and on the list to be considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The lake is also home to several plant and bird species, including providing an important breeding ground for the largest flamingo colony in the Mediterranean. (Flamingoes like to lay their eggs in salty water.)

Over the summer, the lake was the site of a mass casualty event for the flamingoes who flock to Lake Tuz. The corpses of thousands of hatchling flamingoes, known as flaminglets, were recorded in photographs and drone footage of the lake. The government estimated that 1,000 birds died due to low water levels. Environmentalists estimated that just 5,000 birds hatched, compared to more than 12,000 in 2018.

Farming May Be Partly To Blame

Farmers water their fields near Lake Tuz in Aksaray province of Turkey, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP) Farmers water their fields near Lake Tuz in Aksaray province of Turkey, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP)

Like other salt lakes that are facing dire conditions — Utah’s Great Salt Lake dropped to a historic low this summer — experts say human overuse as well as climate change played a role in the situation at Lake Tuz. Aggressive irrigation practices for local agriculture have stressed the water supply in the lake, as farmers divert water and dig wells for water-intensive crops. Turkey faced a summer of devastating heat and wildfires, and drought conditions have been building for years. All are hallmarks of the climate crisis.

In 2000, Lake Tuz was granted special ecological protections by UNESCO, which were intended in part to help keep water levels stable and protect species in the lake. In July, the country’s minister of agriculture and forestry said that agriculture was not to blame for the dire water levels and subsequent flamingo deaths. However, environmentalist groups say that continued farming practices have combined with the drought to make water demand in the area skyrocket, outstripping supply by some 30% last year.

Other Lakes In Trouble

A man walks along Lake Tuz in Aksaray province, Turkey, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.  (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP) A man walks along Lake Tuz in Aksaray province, Turkey, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP)

A study conducted in 2007 estimated that Lake Tuz has shrunk to half its size over the past 40 years, thanks again to that combination of industrialisation and drought. Other lakes in Turkey are also feeling the one-two punch of these effects. Last week, a local television station reported that fishing boats in Lake Van, another salt lake and Turkey’s largest lake, struggled and failed to approach a dock due to the incredibly low water levels.

Turkey Faced Searing Temperatures…

Aerial view of Tuz lake in Ankara province, Turkey, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP) Aerial view of Tuz lake in Ankara province, Turkey, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP)

Turkey faced some truly catastrophic conditions fed to climate change this summer. The country also recorded an all-time air temperature high of 120.4 Fahrenheit (49.1 degrees Celsius) in July, measured in the district of Cizre, to the southeast of Lake Tuz. In August, ground temperatures in portions of Turkey to the west of Lake Tuz reached more than 127 degrees Fahrenheit (53 degrees Celsius). (Ground temperatures tend to be higher than air temperatures because heat can more easily dissipate in air.) During the summer, Antalya, a popular tourist destination, consistently logged temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius).

…And Devastating Wildfires

People take photographs at Tuz lake in Ankara, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP) People take photographs at Tuz lake in Ankara, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP)

Wildfires also devastated the country this summer, along with much of Southern Europe. In late July and early August, coinciding with the searing temperatures, 270 wildfires cropped up in 53 provinces across the country, in what the government said was the worst wildfire season in the country’s history. At least 9 people died in the fires, which burned more than 230,000 acres and forced dozens of villages and communities to evacuate. Apocalyptic footage posted to social media showed people fleeing from the flames onto a beach. (In an abrupt climate about-face, barely two weeks later, the country also experienced catastrophic floods that killed at least 27 people.)

“It’s a Bad Situation All Over Turkey”

A man walks along Lake Tuz, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP) A man walks along Lake Tuz, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. (Photo: Emrah Gurel, AP)

“(We have) rising temperatures and decreasing rain, and on the other side, the water needs for irrigation in agriculture,” Levent Kurnaz, a scientist at Bogazici University’s Centre for Climate Change and Policy Studies, told the AP. “It’s a bad situation all over Turkey at the moment.”

The disappearing water in Lake Tuz is only a sign of things to come. A drought that hit the eastern Mediterranean in the 2010s was among the worst in at least 900 years. Climate projections show that the country could see worsening drought as the century goes on, adding to the water stress.