Located in a remote region of Tanzania, in East Africa, Lake Natron is one of the most toxic places on Earth. Part of its toxicity is caused by the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, located on the lake’s southern coast. This active volcano expels a strange magma that’s rich in sodium and potassium carbonate.
It’s known as natrocarbonatite, or natron. The magma flows into the water, making it extremely alkaline. And the desert’s salty rain soaks into it. Unlike other lakes, Lake Natron’s water doesn’t run to the sea or other streams. Instead, it evaporates, and the sodium stays behind. This increases the lake’s salinity, making it even more lethal.
Most animals can’t survive these corrosive waters. If they fall in, they could die before touching the bottom of the lake. Ancient Egyptians used the same chemicals to turn dead bodies into mummies by eroding the skin and calcifying the remains. So, if you don’t want to be reduced to an empty bone skeleton, keep reading.
What happens if you drink the water? How could you swim in the lake without burning your skin? And why are there so many flamingos around?
Step 1: Find a ride
Lake Natron’s water can reach 60°C (140°F). That’s hot enough to give you third-degree burns in five seconds or less. And with the water’s high concentration of salt, you would dehydrate quickly. So you really need to stay out of the water. If you’re in a vehicle that crashes into the lake, climb onto anything that can help you stay out of the water, and find something you can use to paddle to shore. Avoid using your hands.
Step 2: Wear a suit
If an emergency happens, and you have a dry suit, get into it fast. When you’re in Lake Natron’s corrosive water, the dry suit can help insulate your skin from the sodium. But you still need to get to shore fast. The salt will soon dry out the suit’s fabric, and once it touches you, it can burn your skin and corrode away your tissue.
Step 3: Swim clumsily
If you fall into the lake during the wet season, it could be up to 3 m (10 ft) deep. The good news is that you won’t sink due to the extremely high salt concentration in the water. The bad news is, you know, the hot water will burn you. No matter what, don’t let the water get into your mouth, nose, ears, or eyes. The water is almost as corrosive as ammonia. If you swallow it, you’ll die. If it splashes into your eyes, it could permanently blind you. So, forget about your swimming lessons and keep your head above the water.
Step 4: Work Together
In 2007, a documentary film crew was flying over Lake Natron. Its surface was clear and beautiful that morning. But the helicopter’s landing skid hit the lake’s surface. The entire craft plunged into the corrosive water and caught fire. Cameraman Ben Herbertson recalls that the hot, salty water was burning his eyes. The pilot broke his leg and suffered severe cuts to his face. The producer broke his hip. Herbertson and other passengers helped them out of the chopper. The water wasn’t deep, so they tried to drag their wounded to shore. But Lake Natron is 1,040 square meters (11,194 ft2) in size, so they had a long way to go. Fortunately, they were just a few kilometers (miles) from the coast, so Herbertson and one of the guides rushed to the nearby Maasai village for help.
Step 5: Make friends
The guide speaks the Maasai language and quickly explained what happened. The young villagers improvised stretchers with their walking sticks and clothing, so they could lift the injured passengers out of the lake’s hot, dangerous water. The entire team survived, but the pilot and producer were flown to hospitals in Nairobi and South Africa.
This caustic lake could be fatal to you, and many other animals. But surprisingly, it is full of life. Every three to four years, up to 2 million lesser flamingos take advantage of the islands in the middle of the deadly lake to raise their babies away from predators. They are so well adapted that they feed on the salty algae growing at the bottom of the lake. Since 75% of the world’s population of this near-threatened species is born in this harsh environment, Lake Natron is essential for its survival. So, looks are deceiving.
- “Lesser Flamingo Facts And Information | Seaworld Parks & Entertainment”. 2021. seaworld.org.
- “Newsman Forrest Sawyer Survives ‘Copter Crash”. 2021. people.com.
- “What If You Jumped Into Lake Natron? | What If Show”. 2020. What If Show.
- “Strangest Magma On Earth: Carbonatites Of Ol Doinyo Lengai”. Klemetti, Erik. 2014. Wired.
- “Africa’s most toxic lakes are a paradise for fearless flamingos”. Rose, Paul. 2021. CNN.