Mono Lake

After taking a full year off of teaching, going back into the classroom at a new school has been full of challenges, the biggest one being that we didn’t have a principal for two months. However, work life has stabilized a bit and I’m looking forward to blogging a bit again about my adventures in this world. They will, of course, be a bit more spread out and like this one, a bit delayed.

For my birthday last year, a couple of friends and I drove up to Mono Lake which is near the Nevada state line, right next to Yosemite. I heard of this place back when I was on a research cruise to Antarctica when we pulled up a really strange mineral called ikaite. This green block of hydrated calcium carbonate forms in anaerobic, very cold conditions in marine sediment. When the team was pulling up cores, we found a few of these and we had to pop them into the freezer immediately. Once the water in them melts, the whole structure falls apart and there’s nothing left to look at.

While we were looking at the ikaite, one of the professors told me there was a version of this rock on land found at Mono Lake. The tufa towers found on the outskirts of the lake are also made of calcium carbonate, but the molecules are arranged in a slightly different manner and are thus, much more stable.

gorgeous view of Mono Lake from a canoe

These towers are actually formed in the same way that Lac Abbé in Djibouti were made. It was surreal to think about these unique formations being made on opposite sides of the world. The major difference between the two is that the chimneys of Mono Lake still sit near the lake, whereas the waters in Lac Abbé have continued to recede over time and is quite far away.

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tufa towers at Mono Lake

The story of Mono Lake is a true heroic effort of grassroots activism. Since the 1940s, the government had been diverting tributaries to the lake to supply water to Los Angeles. In the late 1970s, a group of researchers realized that this continued practice was eventually going to mean that the lake they studied and loved was eventually going to disappear.

Together, they formed the Mono Lake Committee which was devoted to preserving the lake and its unique habitat. A group of lawyers decided to press a case around the idea that the state has a legal responsibility to take care of and maintain navigable waterways. This was a statute of common law that had never been used in court in this way. However, the California Supreme Court ruled in their favor in 1983: “The public trust…is an affirmation of the duty of the state to protect the people’s common heritage of streams, lakes, marshlands and tidelands…”  Since then, water levels have stabilized and have even increased since their lowest point. However, they are still almost 25 feet lower than they were in the 1940s.


today’s Mono Lake

Due to its alkalinity and salinity, very few creatures live in Mono Lake’s extreme environment. There are lots of brine shrimp swimming around, which are similar to those that live in Utah’s Great Salt Lake and the San Francisco Bay. However, I think the the most interesting is the alkali flies (Ephydra hians). They create a bubble around their heads and then swim down to the rocks in the shallow waters and lay their eggs. They basically create a mini oxygen scuba tank around their heads. And they don’t bite humans!!!!


the black dots in the water are the flies; brine shrimp; and Glen, me & Ilana posing with the tufa

One other really awesome fact about these flies are that they are edible and rich in proteins and fats. The Kucadikadi are the band of Northern Paiute people who traditionally lived in the area and used to dry the pupae in the sun, rub off the shell, and then make the small yellow remnants into a soup. These flies were a source of food and were traded across the Yosemite region as a delicacy. Today, the Kucadikadi are still working to achieve federal recognition as a distinct tribe.

The name “Mono” most like came from another group of natives, known as the Yokut who at that time lived near Fresno. Mono is supposedly derived from a Yokut word that means “fly eater” and because colonizers encountered the Yokuts first, they used the Yokut name for people in the area. More information about the Yokut people, including their current work and their history can be found at the Tule River Indian Tribe site.


sunrise at Mono Lake