Posted on September 03 2019
Some time ago, the Geo-Joint looked at underwater logging. No, that doesn’t involve scuba divers with waterproof chainsaws but rather the retrieval of cut logs that were meant to float downstream to a collection area but sank instead. Lying for years or even decades at the bottom of cold lakes, the logs are well preserved, and some are so old that they harken back to the time of logging virgin forests. As such, their wood is exceptionally clear and evenly grained, and still excellent for any application. So it’s pretty obvious that cold water is a marvelous preservative for wood that falls into it, but a place in Kazakhstan exhibits a stranger situation. The Tian Shan Mountains arc from western China through Kyrgyzstan, just south of Kazakhstan. Some of the range reaches north of the border into Kazakhstan, and that is where a magnitude 7.7 tremor near Saty caused a landslide back in 1911. The debris that came loose blocked a valley, and created a natural dam. Runoff over the following years created Lake Kaindy, a 1300-foot-long body of water, almost 100 feet deep at its lowest point. Of course, the landscape within the newly formed basin was drowned, and while no villages or settlements were inundated, the local flora went submarine. This included quite a few Asian, or Schrenk’s, spruce trees, whose upper reaches rose well above the new lake surface. Their roots, though, became oversaturated, drowning the tall trees.
Ordinarily this would have led to their slow decomposition as insects and bacteria chewed away at the dead wood. Indeed, that is what has happened to the upper reaches of the trees, which protrude above the water as weathered poles, stripped of bark and branches. However, at over 6,500 feet in elevation, this is a cold environment, and Lake Kaindy’s temperature never rises above 43 degrees Fahrenheit all year. So while the treetops slowly lost their needles and boughs, the parts below the waterline were sealed in a watery refrigerator. This preservative environment not only kept the needles on the trees, but they are still green, well over 100 years after the earthquake! Temperatures in the lake only go lower in winter, and the lake freezes over. Though located only 80 crow-flight miles (or 175 by road) from Kazakhstan’s capital of Almaty, it takes a 4×4 to get up the last few miles of road, even in good weather. The particularly hardy go to it in winter to ice dive and view the green branches. The less masochistic can view the wonder of the greenery through the clear, aquamarine waters in more temperate seasons, and do some fishing at the same time.
A far less verdant landscape can be found at Tanzania’s Lake Natron, on the border with Kenya, northwest of Mt. Kilimanjaro. To be fair, it is nearly on the equator, so heat is a given. Rainfall rates are low, and Lake Natron is internally draining, so it concentrates chemicals and minerals as does the Dead Sea. The limited inflow and the strongly evaporative sunshine diminish the water supply. Its proximity to volcanoes means some harsh ingredients wash in, and with pH readings up to 10.5, the water is highly alkaline. Even sticking your hand into Lake Natron can be painful if you should have a cut or scrape. Only one species of fish and a salt-tolerant species of algae manage to survive the conditions. The algae at least lend a spot of garish red or pink color to the arid landscape at certain seasons. Birds also come by, especially flamingoes, which get their pink color from the algae. Unfortunately, the reflectivity of the lake’s water in combination with the bright sky can create illusions that seem to cause some birds to accidentally fly into the water, thinking it is air. Even pilots have been known to be fooled by the optics. Birds that make that mistake do not live to tell the tale, and their drowned carcasses are hauntingly preserved by the highly salty brine. When the rainy season is over and the lake recedes under the blazing sun, a macabre scene emerges. Individual, or even whole flocks of migratory birds which followed the leader into the water can sometimes be seen along the shore, desiccated and looking like something from a Stephen King novel, all bony outlines and encrusted feathers.
Certainly Lake Kaindy’s soaking old green trees are more charming to observe than the gaunt birdlife of Lake Natron, but they illustrate some of the variety of ways in which nature, weather, and geology can combine to stymie the process of decomposition after death. We may all eventually go ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but for some it is a protracted experience.
Kazakhstan and Lake Kaindy are off the beaten track and not well known to travellers. Get familiar with the country with this colorful wall map, available from Maps.com.
caption: The dead spires of tall trees that drowned rise above Lake Kaindy’s placid surface.
source: Pexels: jai Goshar (Pexels license)
caption: Dimly visible below the water in this photograph are the still-green branches preserved by the lake’s consistently chilly temperature.
source: Wikimedia Commons: t_y_l (CC by SA 2.0)
caption: Algal growth in Lake Natron turns its color to shades of red and pink.
source: Wikimedia Commons: NASA (Public domain)
caption: Lake Natron’s caustic waters provide food for flamingoes and a grimly preservative environment for animals that perish in it.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Richard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (CC by 2.0 Generic)