Lake Urmia: A Drying Hypersaline Lake
Lake Urmia is a hypersaline lake situated in Iran, close to the border with Turkey. At its full size, it once was the largest lake in the Middle East, but because of a number of circumstances, it is continuously shrinking.
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History and Origins of its Name
The earliest mentions of the lake date back to 9th century BC, in Assyrian records. The lake was located in the Mannaean Kingdom, where the lake’s latin name “Lakus Matianus” originates from. In the past 500 years the lake shore was home to various people, including Iranians, Kurds, Armenians and Azeris.
The ancient Persian name of Urmia was “Chichast”, which means “glittering”, a reference to the shiny mineral particles situated in the water and on the shores of the lake. In medieval times it was called “Kabuda”, originating from the Persian word “azure”, in relation to the color of the lake. In the early 1930’s, they changed the lakes name again into Rezaiyeh, after Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was the Shah of Iran (the ruler, emperor) between 1925 and 1941.
After the Iranian Revolution in the late ‘70s the lake gained the name “Urmia”, after the capital of the province, which means “city of water”.
Lake Urmia is surrounded by plateaus in the South, mountains in the Western and Northern parts, and plateaus and volcanic cones on the East. Its shoreline changes as the lake levels rise and decline, but it usually appears as a long, white margin of salt. When the waters are high, large salt marshes appear on the Easter n and Southern shores.
It has more than 100 islands, of which Bard and Shahi are largest ones, and which serve as resting points for migrartory birds. Shahi Island is the final resting place of the son of Genghis Khan, Hulagu Khan and is also the breeding place for the Brine Shrimp.
The lake and the area around Urmia was declared a Ramsar Site in 1971, a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1976 to encourage sustainable development, and is under the protection of the Iranian Department of Environment.
Urmia Lake has plenty of affluents, of which the largest is the Talkeh River, flowing in from the North-Eastern part, gathering the melted snow from the surrounding Sabalan and Sahand mountains. Other important inflows are the Zarineh and Simineh, twin rivers approaching the lake from the South, the Rozeh, Shahar, Barandouz, Mahabad and Leylan Rivers.
Because the lake has no outflows, it only loses water through evaporation, and has become extremely salty. Its Sodium and Chloride concentrations are four times the concentration of natural saltwater. The main salts that can be found here besides Sodium and Chloride are Sulfates. Urmia is one-fourth as salty as the Dead Sea.
Ecology and Vegetation
Paleoecological studies show that in the Glacial Period the surroundings of the lake were filled with grass steppes, which changed by the Interglacial Period, when juniper-steppe forests ruled the land. Urmia had a complex hydrological history, and specialists say it even survived harsher conditions in the past.
Because of its extreme salinity, Urmia is home to little organic life, only a few salt-tolerant species can survive in these circumstances. The Brine shrimp (Artemia) is one of the lake’s most important tenants, which is found in large numbers – Urmia is home to the World’s largest habitats of the Artemia.
Besides these small creatures, more than 200 birds check in at Lake Urmia, because it serves as a stopping point and place of nourishment (they feed on the shrimp). Among the most popular birds that frequent the lake we can enumerate flamingos, pelicans, spoonbills, ibises, storks, shelducks stilts and gulls. The lake shores also give home to 41 reptiles, 7 amphibians and 27 different species of deer.
Lake Urmia has been drying up for years now, with an annual evaporation rate of 0.6 – 1 m. The lake has retreated by 60% and there’s a real threat that it could disappear entirely, with only 5% of the waters remaining today. The recent drought in the area, as well as the hot weather have both contributed to the water loss, its levels reaching an absolute low.
Because the lake is basically a major barrier between the two most important cities of Western and Eastern Azerbaijan (Urmia and Tabriz), a lake bridge was completed in 2008, to help local transport. Even though the bridge is somewhat good from the local’s point of view, it has also contributed to the ecological downfall of Lake Urmia.
The inflowing rivers have also lost parts of their water volume because of the drought, because more than 6.4 million people who live around the lake and the rivers use the waters for personal and agricultural purposes.
The consequences have been devastating. The lake has reached a salinity level of more than 300 grams/liter, in which not even the small shrimp can survive. In order to save the Artemia population, the salinity levels need to be below 200 grams/liter. If the shrimps disappear, it will lower the viability of the migratory birds, since they feed on these macro zooplanktons, undermining the local food web.
The drying of the lake can also affect the local climate, creating violent salt storms, which would diminish the productivity of the agricultural lands that surround the lakes, so locals would have to move away. The extremely salty air, the poor land and the low water quality would also cause serious health issues, such as eye and respiratory diseases.
As urgent restoration efforts are needed to save Lake Urmia, locals have taken a stand and decided to come in aid of the rich and unique natural habitat. The Northern neighbor, Armenia, has agreed to transfer water to help better the conditions of the Iranian lake. In 2014 funds were collected with the goal of helping the lake and the surrounding wetland, money which will be used for better water management and environmental restoration.
The Silveh Dam is said to be completed in 2015, and will carry nearly 122 000 000 m3 of water from Lavin River, through various tunnels and canals into Lake Urmia.