Stark Mono Lake

Mono Lake is a large, shallow saline lake in Mono County, California, formed at least 760,000 years ago as a terminal lake in a basin that has no outlet to the ocean. Because it lacks an outlet, dissolved salts make the lake very alkaline and salty. The starkness and extreme chemical composition makes for a landscape that is unattractive yet beautiful at the same time.

This desert lake has an unusually productive ecosystem based on brine shrimp that thrive in its waters, and provides critical nesting habitat for two million annual migratory birds that feed on the shrimp. Mono Lake is also notable for containing GFAJ-1, a rod-shaped extremophile bacterium that may be capable of incorporating the usually poisonous element arsenic into its biochemistry.

The human history of Mono Lake is associated with its productive ecosystem. The native Kutzadika’a people derived nutrition from the larvae of the alkaline flies that live in the lake. When the city of Los Angeles diverted water from flowing into the lake, it lowered the lake level, which imperiled the migratory birds. The Mono Lake Committee formed in response, winning a legal battle that forced Los Angeles to partially restore the lake level.

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