12 Amazing Soda Lakes Around the World

These surprisingly productive ecosystems can contain a diversity of life.

Lesser flamingos feeding on Lake Natron with Mount Shompole / Tanzania
cinoby / Getty Images

While the unusual chemical properties and extreme alkalinity of the world's soda lakes may appear inhospitable for life, soda lakes are in fact among the most productive ecosystems in the world. Unlike the ocean, where the availability of dissolved organic carbon can limit productivity, these lakes have a virtually unlimited supply of carbon to fuel photosynthesizing organisms.

Check out these 12 amazing soda lakes, the unique diversity of life they hold, and their role in producing many of the minerals we rely upon today.

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Lake Shala

Flamingos flying over a lake.
Flamingos in Lake Shala, Ethopia.

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Lake Shala (or Shalla) is located in central Ethiopia in Abijatta-Shalla National Park. The Lake receives water from two rivers: the Dededba and the Jiddo. With a maximum depth of over 800 feet, Lake Shala is Ethiopia's deepest lake. Unlike the many other lakes located along the Ethiopian Rift, Lake Shala is a blue-black color due to its abundant population of spirulina, a type of blue-green algae. There are nine islands within Lake Shala that are used by a number of bird species including pelicans and cormorants.

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Lake Magadi

An aerial view of Lake Magadi
Kenya's Lake Magadi, one of many soda lakes in the region.

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Lake Magadi is located in a tectonically active area in Kenya. It receives an abundance of dissolved salts from nearby alkaline hot springs, making it one of the world's most extreme soda lakes. Despite its super salty, alkaline water chemistry, Lake Magadi is home to a diversity of microbial life. Lake Magadi, as well many other soda lakes around the world, is also mined for its "soda ash"—the commercial name for sodium carbonate. Soda ash is then processed to form various household chemicals including baking soda.

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Soap Lake

Soap Lake in Washington with foam on the shore.
Soap-like foam on the shores of Soap Lake in Washington.

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Washington State's Soap Lake is named after the soap-like foam that forms on this soda lake's surface. It's rare to see foam there today, which scientists attribute to changes in the lake's hydrology resulting from human water usage. Despite modern changes to Soap Lake, it is believed the lake's oxygen-filled and oxygen-lacking layers have not mixed in over 2,000 years.

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Mono Lake

Mono Lake tufas
Scientists think Mono Lake's microbes may have helped form these tower-like tufas.

David Clapp / Getty Images

Mono Lake in California is just east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. On the lake's south shore are "tufas," or tall chimneys made of minerals. Scientists are not sure how Mono Lake's chimneys formed, but believe the lake's diversity of microbial life may have had a role.

Unlike the lake's deeper water, Mono Lake's surface waters are not super salty. The lake's layers and lack of mixing causes inorganic compounds, including toxic substances, to accumulate at the bottom of the lake.

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Lake Zabuye

Access roads leading to a white lake.
Tibet's Lake Zabuye is mined for its lithium stores.

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Lake Zabuye is located in Tibet within the Gangdisi Mountains. In the 1980s, lithium was discovered in Lake Zabuye's. fine sediments. Commercial lithium extraction operations began at Lake Zabuye in 1999 and continue today.

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Lake Nakuru

Water buffalo and flamingos in Lake Nakuru.
Water buffalos and flamingos in Lake Nakuru, a soda lake in Kenya.

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Lake Nakuru is located in Kenya within Lake Nakuru National Park. The lake once attracted an abundance of flamingos that feasted on Lake Nakuru's algae, but a rapid rise in the lake's water level in 2013 caused the lake's flamingos to migrate to other nearby soda lakes in search of food. Together, the high productivity of Lake Nakuru and other soda lakes can support millions of Kenya's flamingos.

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Alkali Lake

Alkali Lake is a super salty alkaline soda lake in Lake County, Oregon. This soda lake is known for its crystals; it accumulates centimeter-sized crystals made of calcium formate. Alkali Lake is dry for most of the year, aiding in crystal formation.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, herbicide manufacturing waste was disposed of just west of Alkali Lake. The drums containing the waste were later buried in trenches in the area, allowing some waste to leach through the soils into the area's shallow groundwaters, including the waters of Alkali Lake. The area is still thought to pose hazards for various animals. Remediation efforts at Alkali Lake continue today.

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Searles Lake

A dried up lake with a sign in the middle
Searles Lake is a dried up soda lake in Death Valley National Park.

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Searles Lake is located on the Southern Edge of Death Valley National Park in California. Over 10,000 years ago, Searles Lake was part of a massive drainage network that is now largely dry. Today, Searles Lake is mined for its rare minerals, including borax and sodium sulfate.

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Lonar Lake

Lonar Lake is located within a meteorite impact site in India. Among all soda lakes, Lonar has a particularly unique array of microbial life; for this reason, the lake is under assessment for its potential to host microorganisms capable of producing molecules important for modern biotechnology.

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Lake Natron

Flamingos in a lake with a mountain in the background.
Lake Natron is the only known breeding site for East Africa's lesser flamingo.

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Tanzania's Lake Natron is a soda lake famous for its hostile environment. The lake's waters can reach a pH of over 11, making Lake Natron's water more than 100 times more alkaline than baking soda—enough to burn our skin. Despite the apparently harsh environment Lake Natron provides, this soda lake is the sole breeding site for East Africa's Lesser Flamingos.

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The Soda Lakes in Nevada

In Nevada, Big Soda Lake and Little Soda Lake are a pair of soda lakes located within two volcanic craters. Today, there are two geothermal energy power plants along the lakes. These power plants use the hot water located just below the lakes to produce steam which can be converted into electricity.

Nevada's Big Soda Lake has also been investigated for its similarities to Mars. Mars is known to have high concentrations of perchlorate, which is toxic to most life. To better understand the potential for life to exist on Mars, scientists have identified a number of microbes in Big Soda Lake capable of living within toxic concentrations of perchlorate. Scientific investigations like those at Big Soda Lake support the hypothesis that life could exist on Mars.

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Sambhar Lake

A person carrying a basket of salt by a lake.
Salts are extracted from India's Sambhar Lake.

Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

Lake Sambhar is India's largest inland soda lake. In recent years, Lake Sambhar has been actively studied for its potential to house microbes with characteristics that could aid in the treatment of cancer. The lake's fascinating assemblage of microorganisms may also contain microbes that could help promote plant growth in areas where salt concentrations are high.

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