Why Is Lake Natron Dangerous? 7 Ways the Red Lake Can Kill You

Why Is Lake Natron Dangerous? Lake Natron in Tanzania is a captivating yet scary place. This shallow salt lake, with its scorching temperatures soaring up to 60ºC and a pH level of 10, is not for the faint of heart. However, its distinct crimson hue renders Lake Natron an unparalleled gem of nature, akin only to Bolivia’s Laguna Colorada.

Lake Natron as seen from space on 3 March 2017 Image by NASA

The lake’s color palette shifts from shades of orange to deep red and delicate pink, all courtesy of the tiny inhabitants, bacteria, and microorganisms. Remarkably, this seemingly barren lake is home to flamingos. They nest here and feast upon red algae, defying the lake’s alkalinity. Surrounded by this hostile environment, Lake Natron provides a secure breeding haven for these elegant birds, free from the prying eyes of predators.

Why is Lake Natron Dangerous? Top 7 Ways Lake Natron Can Kill You

Lake Natron’s water boasts an abundance of cyanobacteria, a type of algae. These algae emit a harmful chemical that wreaks havoc on the cells, nerves, and livers of creatures that ingest it. Unfortunately, many birds and animals that quench their thirst from Lake Natron meet a tragic end.

The fate of these animals, birds, and even bats that succumb to the lake is quite peculiar. They become petrified, turning into eerie mummified versions of themselves. Renowned artist Nick Brandt has taken these petrified creatures and arranged them in lifelike poses, capturing their essence through his lens. He aptly named this collection “Petrified.”

Why Is Lake Natron Dangerous

Situated in the northern reaches of Tanzania, near the Kenyan border, this lake’s vivid red and pink hues have made it famous for its unique ability to transform animals into stone. In a peculiar twist, the same chemical process that ancient Egyptians used for mummification occurs here, preserving the remains of creatures that meet their demise in Lake Natron. It’s a stark reminder of why one should never underestimate the dangers of this seemingly serene lake.

1. *High alkalinity* – This is the main reason why Lake Natron is dangerous

Why Is Lake Natron Dangerous

The lake earns its name from the presence of Natron, a combination of sodium carbonate and baking soda. This natron-rich mix turns the water super alkaline. The lake’s water can be as high as pH 10.5, like ammonia in its alkalinity. If this water finds your eyes, it could harm your vision. To shield yourself from such highly alkaline water, wearing a polyethylene suit is a smart move.

2. *Atmospheric ammonia*

Danger lurks not just in the water but even around the lake. The air carries ammonia, and inhaling it can hurt your eyes, throat, and lungs. Ammonia levels in the air peak from September to November, so it’s best to stay away from Lake Natron during those times. If you find yourself near, escape the area, shed your clothes, and cleanse your body with soap and water for your safety, as this is another reason why Lake Natron is dangerous.

3. Lake Natron is also dangerous because of *Cyanobacteria*

Why Is Lake Natron Dangerous

Tiny, microscopic creatures known as blue-green algae are responsible for the lake’s vibrant red hue. If you accidentally consume or breathe in these harmful blooms, you might experience unpleasant symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, or difficulty breathing.

If you come into contact with, ingest, or inhale the cyanobacteria and its toxins or poisonous gases, swiftly remove your contaminated clothing, cleanse your skin thoroughly, and rinse your eyes with saline solution to stay safe.

4. *Hot water*

The temperature of Lake Natron swings from a toasty 40 °C (104 °F) to a scorching 60 °C (140 °F). This sizzling water can push your body temperature above 40 °C (104 °F), a condition known as hyperthermia. It can bring on feelings of dizziness, weakness, and even heat stroke.

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s crucial to exit the water immediately, move to a cooler spot, and rehydrate. Time is of the essence, as lingering too long could result in passing out and potential drowning.

5. *High salt content*

Why Is Lake Natron Dangerous
Photo by George Steinmetz

The lake holds a significant amount of sodium chloride, basically salt. When you consume a large quantity of salty water, your body works hard to keep your blood pressure in check by narrowing your blood vessels. This can lead to feelings of sickness, weakness, and confusion. To feel better, it’s essential to drink a good amount of fresh water to stay properly hydrated. If you neglect this, your brain and other vital organs may receive less blood, resulting in organ failure, unconsciousness, or even a tragic outcome.

6. *Active volcano nearby*

Ol Doinyo Lengai
Photo by Marco Gaiotti

Ol Doinyo Lengai, a lively volcano located south of Lake Natron, is quite special. It spews out a unique volcanic rock loaded with sodium, potassium, and calcium carbonate. This volcano boasts some of the quickest-flowing lava worldwide.

If you plan to visit Lake Natron, it’s wise to dress in long pants and a shirt with sleeves. Don’t forget to bring along a respirator and some protective goggles. Just in case the volcano decides to erupt, seek higher ground for safety. Always steer clear of the pyroclastics, such as rocks and debris, to avoid harm’s way.

7. *Flamingos*

lesser flamingos
Photo by Sari

The lake is dominated by elegant pink flamingos. Their clever glands in their heads help them extract salt from the water, and their scales shield their legs. Typically, Lake Natron Flamingos are pretty harmless but can turn fierce if they sense a threat.

During the breeding season, they’re more likely to get aggressive, using their sharp, curved beaks and long claws. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to defend yourself, try striking their legs to throw them off balance. Surviving Lake Natron posed its own set of challenges. Surprisingly, it’s not the world’s most dangerous lake. Some other African lakes connect to underground magma or molten rock, making them even more treacherous.

lesser flamingos from the sky
Photo by Michael Poliza

Now that you learned why Lake Natron is dangerous, here are a few more fun facts about it.

Why is Lake Natron red?

The lake sometimes displays vibrant shades of deep red or orange. This striking coloration is the work of a special kind of algae.

In soda lakes like Lake Natron, certain bacteria can cause these algae to flourish and create ‘algae blooms.’ These bursts of algae can paint the water in various shades. Lake Natron’s red hue can change as these blooms come and go. Additionally, you might notice that the lake’s edges often sport a more orange tint than a deep red.

Lake Natron

Pinks too

Deserts are often underestimated by those who haven’t truly experienced them. They’re not just dry, brown places; deserts burst with various colors in reality. Lake Natron and its surroundings, particularly, are known for their vivid pinks and reds.

Consider this:

  • The lake is famous for its rich red algae, one of its unique features.
  • The local Maasai communities have a tradition of wearing striking scarlet robes.
  • The area boasts indigenous desert rose trees that bloom in deep, gorgeous pink.
  • Enormous flocks of pink and white flamingoes find a home by the lake.
  • During summer, pinkish-white soda crystals form a cracked crust over parts of the lake.
  • And, of course, the desert sunsets paint the sky in stunning shades of pink and red, a sight unique to these arid landscapes.

Where is Lake Natron?

Lake Natron can be found in northern Tanzania, a little more than 100 kilometers to the northwest of Arusha city. This unique lake stretches out for about 56 kilometers from top to bottom and is 24 kilometers wide. A tiny piece of it, the lake’s northern tip, even reaches into southern Kenya.

Why go there?

Witness this unique lake and the Natron region, offering stunning sights ranging from vast flats to towering escarpments and mighty volcanoes.

When to go there?

No matter when you visit, you can count on warm weather. Yet, in the wet season, which runs from November to May, it’s common to have afternoon thundershowers.

How to get there?

Experience this amazing area on a safari through Serengeti National Park or the Great Rift Valley.

Make sure you check our guide for the best lakes in Switzerland. Also, learn everything there about the secrets of Lake Natron Mummies.

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