|Type||Endorheic salt lake|
|Primary inflows||River Desaguadero|
|Catchment area||27,700 km2
|Surface area||1,000 km2 (390 sq mi)|
|Average depth||>1 metre (3 ft 3 in)|
|Surface elevation||3,686 m (≈12,100 ft)|
|Designated||11 July 2002|
Lake Poopó (Spanish: Lago Poopó) was a large saline lake located in a shallow depression in the Altiplano Mountains in Bolivia at an altitude of approximately 3,700 metres (12,100 ft). Because the lake was long and wide (90 by 32 kilometres (56 by 20 mi)) it made up the eastern half of the Oruro Department, a mining region in southwest Bolivia. The permanent part of the lake body covered approximately 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi). The lake received most of its water from the Desaguadero River which flows from Lake Titicaca at the north end of the Altiplano. Since the lake lacked any major outlet and had a mean depth of less than 3 metres (9.8 feet), the surface area differed greatly.
In December 2015, the former lake had completely dried up, leaving only a few marshy areas. Although the lake has dried up completely a couple of times in the past, it does not appear that it will recover this time. Suggested causes of the current drying include drought due to climate change, as well as diversion of water for mining and agriculture. In 2002 the lake was designated as a site for conservation under the Ramsar Convention.
Archaeological investigations conducted by the San Andrés University of La Paz, Bolivia, shows the influence of the Wankarani culture on the Poopó area where complex central urban areas such as villages and towns were developed that expanded into the Poopó basin during the Late Formative period, (200 BCE – 200 CE), probably in conjunction with changing patterns of agriculture. Herders and the life style of llama caravan merchants coexisted with more sedentary farmers in a harmonious system of exchange of goods and services. Other investigators examining the following period, the Early Regional Developments (approx. 300 - 900 CE), shows that the size of the inhabited areas increased. The South Poopó inhabitants developed a unique style of ceramics style with triangular spirals. The east portion of the lake displays an important Tiwanaku enclave, with ceramic styles from the core Titicaca area and surrounding styles, demonstrating the interactions between different peoples in the area.
The main inlet of Lake Poopó (roughly 92% of the water) comes from the Desaguadero River which enters the lake at the north end. There are numerous smaller inlets along the eastern shore of the lake, many of which are dry most of the year. At times of very high water levels, Poopó was connected to the salt desert Salar de Coipasa in the west. A minor outlet also lead to Salar de Uyuni in the far south of the Altiplano, but as the lake lacks any major outlet it is classified as an endorheic basin.
When the water level of Lake Titicaca drops below 3,810 m, the flow of Desaguadero River is so low it can no longer compensate for the massive water losses due to evaporation from the surface of Lake Poopó. At this point, the lake volume begins to decrease. At its maximum in 1986, the lake had an area of 3,500 km2. During the years that followed, the surface area steadily decreased until 1994 when the lake disappeared completely. The time period between 1975 and 1992 is the longest period in recent times with a continuous existence of a water body. Renewed Rainfalls in the mid 90s revitalized the Lake again. Action has been taken in order to make the area ecologically sustainable again among other with the help of funding from the European Union. The efforts were not successful, because since 1995 regional temperatures have risen and consequently tripled the evaporation rates. On 20 January 2016 the area was declared a disaster zone by the Bolivian government.
Salinity and geology
The water of Lake Poopó is highly saline. The salinity is a result of the endorheic nature of the hydrological system on the Altiplano, which allows all weathered ions to remain in the system. The salinity of Lake Poopó is further enhanced by the lack of outlet, the arid climate and the high evaporation from the lake surface.
The salinity varies with water volume. During October – November 2006 the salinity in the north end of the lake varied between brackish and saline (15-30,000 mg/l). In the south end of the lake the water was classified as a brine (105,000- 125,000 mg/l). The water type is a 4-2 Na-(Mg)-Cl-(SO4).
Geological sources of NaCl such as halite and feldspars are present in the drainage area. These could also contribute to the salinity of Lake Poopó. The lake body is situated on top of Cenozoic deposits, consisting mainly of unconsolidated material. These sediments are the remains of extensive prehistoric lakes, which covered the Altiplano during at least five glaciation periods.
Mining and heavy metals
There is a long tradition of mining in the Poopó Basin. Extraction of metals began in the 13th century to support the Inca army. After the Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the mining operations became more large scale. At this point the region got its current identity as one of the mining centres of Bolivia.
Studies have shown elevated concentrations of heavy metals in surface and ground waters of the Poopó basin. These metals are naturally present in the bedrock, from which they are released through weathering processes. The mining activities in the area further contributes to the heavy metal pollution. Acid leaching from mines and mechanical processing of ore speed up the process.
The major part of the heavy metals transported to Lake Poopó seem to be immobilized in the bottom sediments. Still, concentrations of arsenic, lead and cadmium in the lake water exceed Bolivian and WHO guideline values for drinking water.
Flora and fauna
Three to four native fish species inhabit the lake: the Mauri (a Trichomycterus catfish), and the Carache and Ispi (Orestias spp.). Two exotic fish species were introduced in the 20th century; the rainbow trout (trucha) in 1942 and the silversides Odontesthes bonariensis (pejerrey) in 1955. These bigger fish are now the most commercially important species. The lake has a relatively large fish population although it declines during the years of low water when the salinity is high.
The aquatic bird life is highly diverse with a total of 34 species. Most famous are the three types of flamingos which mainly live in the shallow lagoons in the northern and eastern parts of the lake. An inventory of the bird population, made in the year 2000 in cooperation with BirdLife International, identified 6 endangered species. Among these are the Chilean flamingo and the Andean condor.
A total of 17 superior plants and 3 species of algae have been identified in and around Lake Poopó. Due to the constant drought and flooding, the littoral zone experiences great disturbances. As a result, there is hardly any vegetation to be found on the shores of the lake.
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