Mono Lake

What a strange place to be.

We're standing on the shores of one of North America's oldest lakes, the low point in an endorheic basin where the waters and salts of the area come to rest. This lake's salinity is about twice that of the oceans. I can see tiny brine shrimp swimming here in the shallows.

I remember the first time I became aware that Mono Lake existed. It was in college, in a class titled "Plant Geography of North America." Our professor was using the Sierra Nevada to illustrate "rain shadows," those places where mountain ranges block precipitation from reaching an area. She explained that in the Sierras, the prevailing winds carry storms in from the west. Water-laden air masses approach the mountain barrier and are forced to rise, cooling as they climb. Vapor condenses to rain or snow, and precipitation falls on the western slopes and the high peaks. The water-depleted air masses then continue eastward with little precipitation remaining to be released, into the rain shadow. She showed us an image of the eastern Sierras. I was surprised, for I didn't anticipate the landscape in the photo. A block of mountains towered to the west above a vast, dry-looking plain, and there in a large depression sat Mono Lake with its eerie spires.

It would be a few years before I saw the lake in person, then three more til today when I first touched the salty water and stood in the shadows of the tufa towers.

These towers are the best-known feature of the lake today. Tufa is a form of limestone, created by the mixing of calcium-rich spring water and carbon-rich lake water. The springs bubble up into the lake from below, calcium bonds with carbon, and calcites precipitate out of the water. Over time, the calcites accumulate in odd formations around the springs, but all this occurs underwater. As water levels fluctuate and the lake drops, the towers become exposed.

When Los Angeles began diverting water from the Mono Basin in 1941, the lake started shrinking. By the 1990s, Mono Lake had half of its pre-diversion volume. The salinity increased, and the tufa towers became exposed. Again, the follies of building giant cities in arid lands had a drastic effect on a western watershed. The level is rising today, slowly, thanks to conservation efforts. While we wait for Mono to refill, at least we have these towers to admire.

Tree swallows are zooming around this parched labyrinth of stone, lighting on perches, perhaps to contemplate the scene like me. Out on the water, hundreds of California gulls are puttering around. A sign told us that the lake’s high salinity makes it hard for them to keep their legs underwater. I see no flailing feet at the moment. Out on an island of tufa, an osprey guards a nest where two of the newest generation clamor for food. The other parent is out circling the skies in search of a meal to bring home for the hungry family.

In the sand, mud, and shallows teems the greatest concentration of organisms here: alkali flies. There must be ten thousand right here before me. Who knows how many I’ve walked past already. Each step along the water’s edge sends a thousand buzzing away from the footfall, never more than a few inches into the air. They do not pester around my head; they stay low. These are adults, and they have only days to live. In those days, they feast on algae, mate, and die, at which point they return the nutrients stored in their bodies to the ecosystem that bore them. Migrating birds are sustained by these and other insects, along with the brine shrimp. Humans, too, have found nourishment in these salty shallows. The Kucadikadi people harvested the pupae of the alkali flies to be dried and consumed. This may seem like a wasteland surrounding a super-salty waterbody, but that’s plainly not true.

Life thrives here. It has, and it will. The birds, the flies, the shrimp, and the lizard that just scampered across the trail all have sustenance here in the rainshadow of the Sierras. I wish I’d come here sooner.

A group of canoes paddles by us. Surely that is the best way to see this place.

Next time. Always next time.


Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer