Vanishing Lakes

By Matthew C. Pace

Apr 14 2023

Lakes are dynamic bodies of water that form the basis for whole ecosystems, providing habitat for wetland plants and food and nesting sites for migratory birds, fish, and other animals. Yet many large lakes are vanishing, subject to often rapid periods of drying that threaten their very existence. In some cases, major lakes have entirely disappeared, or may soon disappear within the next few decades.

The reasons lakes vanish vary, however most are threatened by human activity, including diverting water for agriculture or changing climatic patterns that may include higher temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns.

In the American west, many vanishing lakes are saline, concentrating salts and heavy metals. This can lead to toxic conditions for animals and plants: when the water evaporates, dry lake beds can then blow toxic dust laden with heavy metals and carcinogens into surrounding communities, with major implications for human health.

Herbarium specimens offer a window into the past, allowing us to track and understand changes through time, and potentially forcast changes into the future. Follow the stories below to tour specific vanishing lakes from around the world, and learn more about their histories and the plants that call them home.