I am always surprised when some piece of information I’m looking for is actually not on the Internet.  Such was the case this afternoon when I searched for a list of the largest endorheic waterbodies in the world.  An endorheic waterbody is a terminal lake (sometimes called a sea) that has no outlet other than evaporation.  In other words, rivers and streams flow in but nothing flows out.  Since the only way water escapes is via evaporation everything else – salt, nutrients, pollution – are continuously concentrated in the remaining water.  Some, like the Dead Sea, are so salty they cannot support life, but others support very unique ecosystems.

I’ve become interested in endorheic lakes because they are a microcosm for a number of water-related issues and act as a catchall for the pollution we put into our waterways.  Take, for example, Devils Lake in North Dakota.  Having no outlet means that the level of the lake can increase dramatically over a short period of time.  Since 1995, water levels have gone up nearly 25 feet destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and inundating thousands of acres of productive farmland.  State government constructed an outlet to release water into a nearby river but faced stern opposition from other states and Canada, who don’t want pollution and parasites from Devils Lake transferred into their waters.  As you can see, it can become quite the predicament.  Just wait until I get around to blogging about the Salton Sea!

Anyway, I was searching the Internet for a list of the largest endorheic lakes and I just couldn’t find one.  Sure, Wikipedia has a list of the largest lakes in the world, but this only includes a handful of endorheic lakes.  Wikipedia also has a page on endorheic basins, which mentions a lot of lakes but not in any structured way.  It also intermingles them with drainage basins, which may capture water without outlet but are clearly not lakes.  So, Internet, you’re welcome, because today I have constructed for you a list of the Top Ten Endorheic Lakes of the World (by surface area).

#10 South Aral Sea – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan


Surface Area: 1,350 mi2 (3,496 km2)
 Volume: 21 mi3 (87 km3)
 Elevation: 95 ft (29 m)
 Depth: 131 ft (40 m)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen!  The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world; however, poor water resource management by the former Soviet Union (and continued by Russia) caused the Sea to decline to 10% of it’s original size and split in two over a period of just 50 years!  The South Aral Sea was at first made up of east and west basins, but by 2009 the shallower east basin had evaporated completely, leaving just the west basin. The North Aral Sea is smaller but would be ranked #11 on this list.

Basically, in the 1960’s the USSR considered the Aral Sea a “mistake of nature” and diverted the two rivers that fed it to irrigation projects that would “green the desert.”  Without a source of water the lake began to dry up, devastating the ecosystem as well as the economies of coastal fishing communities.  The exposed bottomlands were so contaminated with pesticides and fertilizer from decades of agricultural runoff that toxic dust storms now blow over nearby towns causing cancer and lung disease.

Nevertheless, even at 10% of it’s original size, the remaining South Aral Sea is still large enough to make it into this top ten list – but for how much longer is unclear.  The South Aral Sea is expected to be completely gone within 15 years.

#9 Lake Van – Turkey

Lake Van

Lake Van's Akhtamar Island and the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross, a 10th century church and monastic complex

Surface Area: 1,450 mi2 (3,755 km2)
 Volume: 146 mi3 (607 km3)
 Elevation: 5,380 ft (1,640 m)
 Depth: 1,480 ft (451 m)

The largest lake in Turkey became endorheic when lava flows cut off the lake’s outflow some 1-2 million years ago.  As is common with terminal lakes, Lake Van is known for its dramatically fluctuating water levels.  The lake level rose 10 feet in the 1990’s flooding much of the area’s agricultural land.

Because the lake has no outlet, undisturbed sediment continuously accumulates.  Lake Van has a layer of sediment 1,300 feet thick and scientists who have retrieved cores from the lake floor have obtained climate data for the past 14,570 years.

The lake is so salty that only one fish, the Pearl Mullet, thrives in it – though there are also rumors of a sea monster named Van Gölü Canavarı.

#8 Great Salt Lake – Utah, USA


Utah's Great Salt Lake with the Wasatch Mountains

Surface Area: 1,700 mi2 (4,400 km2)
 Volume: 4.53 mi3 (18.91 km3)
 Elevation: 4,196 ft (1,279 m)
 Depth: 33 ft (10 m)

Located in the northern part of the Utah, it’s the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere.  Like Lake Van the Great Salt Lake (GSL) is known for it’s dramatic fluctuations in water level. In this case, however, they are attributed to the overall shallowness of the waterbody.  Unlike Lake Van, the GSL supports a diverse wildlife population.  There are few fish, but the marshes surrounding the lake account for 75% of the wetlands in Utah and provide habitat for millions of migratory birds and waterfowl.

Recently it was discovered that methylmercury levels in the GSL are extremely high – 25 times higher than levels that trigger fish advisories in other parts of the country.  Studies have shown that the cause is global industry and coal-burning power plants, which put mercury into the atmosphere.  After drifting around the globe this mercury sometimes finds its way into rivers, oceans, and lakes.  What makes the GSL different from other waterbodies is that the unique endorheic qualities of the lake have created a peculiar combination of bacteria and chemicals that convert inorganic mercury to its more harmful form, methylmercury.

If mercury poisoning doesn’t frighten you, there’s also the obligatory lake monster.  Named the North Shore Monster by someone with no imagination, it is said to have the body of a crocodile and the head of a horse (thanks Wikipedia!).

#7 Qinghai Lake – China

qinghai 014_bird_island_large

Birds on an island in Qinghai Lake, China

Surface Area: 1,733 mi2 (4,489 km2) 
 Volume: 20.39 mi3 (85 km3)
 Elevation: 10,476 ft (3,193 m)
 Depth: 617 ft (188 m)

Qinghai, the largest lake in China, lies in the Northeast of Qinghai Province.  An alpine lake, it typically freezes over for three months in the winter.  In summer it’s a popular destination for both tourists and birds.   So many birds in fact that it is considered a focal point in global concerns over avian influenza (H5N1).  The fear is that if infected birds make it to Qinghai Lake they will spread the disease to migratory birds capable of carrying it across Europe and Asia.  Minor outbreaks have already been identified in the lake’s bird population.

Since the 1960’s, the lake has been shrinking due to reduced water inflow from major rivers and local farmers have turned large tracts of lakeside grassland into farmland.  To reverse the situation, the Chinese government has returned 81,545 acres of farmland to pasture and set up three wetland monitoring stations.

The lake monster in Qinghai is, of course, a dragon.

#6 Lake Urmia – Iran


1 of 102 islands in Lake Urmia, Iran

Surface Area: 2,000 mi2 (5,200 km2)
 Volume: 6.23 mi3 (26 km3)
 Elevation: 4,183 ft (1,275 m)
 Depth: 42 ft (13 m)

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that there’s not a lot of good information on this large salt lake located in Northwestern Iran (at least not in English).  I can tell you that the dominant life form in the lake is the brine shrimp, much to the delight of local bird life.  Because all rivers entering the lake receive more or less untreated waste from urban settlements along them, you might expect the lake to be highly polluted.  But au contraire, it seems that bacteria and typhoid can’t survive in the highly saline waters.  Score one more point for endorheic basins (and thanks International Journal of Salt Lake Research)!

If Google Maps is anything to go by, it looks like Gamichi used to be a coastal town on King Island, but is now just an inland village no longer on an island.  If water levels continue to fall the region will likely be plagued by monstrous storms of toxic dust blowing all the way to Tehran.  It’s been reported that, as part of plans to restore the lake, Iranian government is starting a cloud-seeding program.  Good luck with that one, guys!

Screen shot 2011-01-22 at 5.32.23 PM

The Town of Gamichi is no longer on the coast and King Island is no longer an island! (click to see larger image)

#5 Issyk Kul – Kyrgystan

issyk kul

Shores of Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgystan

Surface Area: 2,407 mi2 (6,236 km2)
 Volume: 417 mi3 (1,738 km3)
 Elevation: 5,272 ft (1,607 m)
 Depth: 2,192 ft (668 m)

If this list were by volume, Lake Issyk Kul would be #2.  By volume it pretty much dwarfs all but the #1 waterbody on this list.  Located in the Tian Shan Mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan, it’s surrounded by snow-capped peaks but the water’s high salt content keeps it from freezing.  In medieval times the lake was 26 feet lower and divers have found the remains of drowned settlements in shallow areas.  In 2007, archaeologists reportedly discovered the remains of a 2,500 year-old civilization at the bottom of the lake.

Fed mainly by glaciers and semi-secluded, Issyk Kul appears to have escaped the pollution and agricultural issues that plague many lower-lying endorheic lakes.

#4 Lake Turkana – Kenya and Ethiopia


Volcanic crater on Central Island in Lake Turkana

Surface Area: 2,473 mi2 (6,405 km2)
 Volume: 78.61 mi3 (204 km3)
 Elevation:  1,181 ft (360 m)
 Depth: 357 ft (109 m)

Finally, a second non-Eastern endorheic lake has made it on to the list!  The world’s largest permanent desert lake and largest alkaline lake is in Kenya (and shares a small northern border with Ethiopia).  Surrounded by barren volcanic lava beds and almost no vegetation, it looks like something you might see in Tolkien’s Mordor.  An active volcano sits on Central Island in the middle of the lake.  The hot arid shores are lined with crocodiles, scorpions, and vipers.  Nevertheless, locals actively fish the lake’s abundant fishery.

Referred to by some as the birthplace of mankind, Lake Turkana is now threatened by human activity.  The level of the lake has been declining and, though government blames global warming, the real cause is more likely the Gibe III Dam being constructed on the Omo River, which provides 80-90% of the lake’s water supply.  The new dam will dramatically impact the ecosystem as well as the lives of those who live below the dam, but provide impoverished Ethiopia with much needed hydroelectric power.  The BBC has even made a documentary about it.

#3 Lake Eyre – Australia

03 Lake Eyre full-empty

Lake Eyre dry / Lake Eyre full

Surface Area: 3,668 mi2 (9,500 km2)*
 Volume: 11.52 mi3 (48 km3)*
 Elevation: -49 ft (-15 m)*
 Depth: 13 ft (4 m)*
* Note these measurements are when the lake is full.

It may be controversial to rank a lake that only sometimes exists as the 3rd largest endorheic waterbody in the world; but when it’s full, what a waterbody it is!  Once in a generation Lake Eyre is the largest lake in Australia.  Located in the country’s central desert, it’s the lowest point in Australia at 49 feet below sea level.  The lake hasn’t been full since 1974 but has experienced partial fillings in 1984, 1997, and 2010.

Filling typically occurs during strong La Niña years when rivers from the northeast flow toward the lake.  Often, the rivers dry up in the desert without reaching Lake Eyre.  When they do manage to make the journey, they bring with them fish and the region is temporarily inundated with life (especially birds).  Over a period of 1-2 years the lake once again dries up and the increasing salinity causes massive fish kills.

The Lake Eyre Yacht club includes sailors who travel great distances from the Australian coast to set sail on Lake Eyre whenever it fills.  Their most recent outing included a 58-boat regatta in July 2010.

#2 Lake Balkhash – Kazakstan

Lake Balkhash

Factory on Lake Balkhash

Surface Area: 7,115 mi2 (18,428 km2) 
 Volume: 25 mi3 (106 km3)
 Elevation:  1,120 ft (341 m)
 Depth:  85 ft (26 m)

Like the Aral Sea and many other endorheic lakes in this list, Lake Balkhash is shrinking due to diversion of the waters that feed it.  The west side of the lake is made up of fresh water used for drinking and industry, while the east side is highly saline and undrinkable.  This unusual phenomenon occurs because the lake receives 80% of its inflow from the glacier-fed Lli River entering the lake from the west.  This fresh water pushes the brackish water east and keeps the west side potable.

The Lli River flows out of China, a country increasingly using the river as a source of drinking water for their rapidly expanding population.  In 2007, Kazakstan offered a price reduction for sales of Kazakh goods to China in exchange for a reduction of water consumption from the Lli River, but the offer was declined.

3.3 million people live in the basin of the Lake, including residents of Almaty – the largest city in Kazakhstan.  Lake Balkhash is heavily polluted by mining and agriculture both along its shores and along the rivers that feed it.  There have been some signs that Kazakhstan has been strengthening its water management efforts in recent years, but it is unlikely that they have done enough to either clean up the lake or to reverse the declining water levels.

#1 Caspian Sea – Russia, Turkmenistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan


Oil Rig on the Caspian Sea

Surface Area: 143,200 mi2 (371,000 km2) 
 Volume: 16,600 mi3 (69,400 km3)
 Elevation:  -92 ft (-28 m)
 Depth:  3,360 ft (1,025 m)

The largest endorheic lake in the world is also the world’s largest lake (by both area and volume).  It’s more than 4 ½ times larger than Lake Superior and, unlike every other lake in this list, it borders five countries, several of which have military fleets on the sea.  Is it even a sea?  Many negotiations concerning international borders as well as the use and transportation of resources – including fish, oil, natural gas, and access to canals on Russia’s Volga River – hinge on whether the Caspian is defined as a sea or a lake.

The oil in the Caspian basin is estimated to be worth over $12 trillion.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union Dick Cheney commented, “I can’t think of a time when we’ve had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”

The Caspian Sea Monster is something altogether different from other sea monsters mentioned in this list.  Known as an Ekranoplan, it was a bizarre cross between a boat and an airplane.  It was designed by the Soviet Union to transport troops and cargo at speeds up to 300 mph while flying just 20 feet above the water.  A top secret project, it was discovered in the 1950’s by U.S. satellite photos of the Caspian Sea.  Military analysts didn’t know what to make of the strange half-boat/half-plane design and dubbed it the “Caspian Sea Monster.”  The Russians discontinued the project after a disastrous crash in the early 1980’s.

caspian sea monster

The Caspian Sea Monster

So, there you have it.  Now just imagine what kind of crazy vacation (or life quest) it would be to try and visit all of these bizarre waterbodies!


Internet Sources:

Wikipedia Sources:

Journal Sources:
Brian V. Timms. A Study of Lake Wyara, an episodically filled saline lake in southwest Queensland, Australia. International Journal of Salt Lake Research 7: 113–132, 1998.

Boqiang, Qin. The hydrological characteristics and water budget of Qinghai Lake drainage basin. Chinese Journal of Oceanology and Limnology, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1993.

Letolle, Rene, Nicholas Aladin, Igor Filipov, and N.G.O. Borofka. The future chemical evolution of the Aral Sea from 2000 to the Years 2050. Mitigation and Adamptation Strategies for Global Change, Vol. 10, p. 51-71, 2005.

Ghaheri M., M.H. Baghal-Wayjooee, and J. Naziri. Lake Urmia, Iran: A summary review. International Journal of Salt Lake Research. Vol. 8, p. 19-22, 1999.

Photo Sources: