Libya is one of the hottest, driest countries on Earth, but even in the midst of the Sahara’s windswept desert dunes one can find an oasis or two… or more! The Ubari Lakes offer intrepid travelers a refreshing splash of unexpected beauty that’s more than just a mirage.
Libya: So Hot Right Now
(images via: New York Times)
Libya today is about 90 percent desert with most of the fertile areas being on the northern coastline bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Starting from the coastal plains where most of Libya’s population live, the farther south one goes the hotter and drier it gets… with a few rare and wonderful exceptions. These would be the Ubari Lakes, a dozen and a half shimmering mirrors of water surrounded by some of the most hostile terrain on the planet.
(image via: Climate Sanity)
The Ubari Lakes are the poster kids for natural climate change and owe their existence and perseverance to a variety of chronic geological and meteorological factors. The lakes, found in the southwestern Libyan province of Fezzan, were once one big lake (we’re talking Lake Superior size or larger) known as Lake Megafezzan.
Though the Sahara region has been steadily drying out for tens of thousands of years, Lake Megafezzan managed to hold out against desertification until finally giving up the ghost approximately 3,000 years ago.
(image via: National Geographic)
Though most of Lake Megafezzan’s bed is now scoured by rolling waves of sand dunes, isolated micro-lakes persist in the face of relentless evaporation because the valleys they’re situated in dip into the Sahara’s extensive underground water table.
South Of Tripoli, East Of Eden
Archeologists have discovered abundant evidence that what is today the horrifically hot Sahara Desert was once a fertile, temperate region well-watered by meandering rivers and freshwater “palaeolakes”. Rock carvings and paintings left by the region’s ancient human inhabitants as much as 12,000 years ago depict giraffes, hippos, crocodiles and other wetland creatures, leading some pundits to speculate the idyllic region was the inspiration for the biblical Garden of Eden.
The Ubari Lakes are not filled with fresh water – a fact that parched travelers must have found annoying to say the least. Dissolved minerals in the lakes become concentrated by evaporation and with no rivers to replenish them, water is drawn out of the aquifer.
The water is so super-saturated with salts and carbonates, some lakes take on a blood-red hue from the presence of salt-tolerant algae. In other lakes, swimmers find their buoyancy is exaggerated much like what occurs in the Dead Sea.
Save The Dates
Incongruously green vegetation surrounds the shores of the Ubari Lakes, either sprouted from wind-blown seeds or survivors from the Sahara’s ancient wetter era. The salty state of the lake water doesn’t faze the plant life on the shores, however, as most of the larger trees, shrubs and date palms send their roots downward into the easy-to-access aquifer.
As for those weary caravans of yesteryear and the scattered settlements of today, they source their water in a similar way: by sinking wells deep enough to reach the water table. It’s an awe-inspiring to consider the water that fills both the Ubari Lakes and the buckets lifted from area wells once fell as rain in what was, by comparison at least, a real Garden of Eden!
Lakes In The Sea
The Ubari Sand Sea, that is. One wonders how these smallish lakes keep their heads above water, as it were, after centuries of constant infill from windblown sand? Even though the Ubari Lakes are not exactly shallow, ranging from 7 to 32 meters (23 to 105 ft) in depth, their specific ecology has managed to find a rough balance that allows them to remain relatively constant in size and depth over the long span of recorded history.
Mother Nature may indeed be resilient but the Ubari Lakes are still considered to be threatened and ongoing, natural climate change cannot take all of the blame. Though vast by most any standards, the Sahara’s underground aquifer is no longer being replenished by temperate rains. Some areas of southern Libya have not seen a drop of rain fall in over a decade. Combine this with the increasing use of aquifer water by growing human populations and you have the recipe for a lakeless future.
Though things are kind of “hot” in Libya right now – and not just the weather – once the political situation settles down the Ubari Lakes should definitely be added to anyone’s exotic travel itinerary. Let’s hope the chance comes soon… should environmental trends continue along current lines, these exquisite lakes may some day be only seen as mirages.