How can a lake simply disappear?

Other Disappearing Lakes
This sinkhole is one of two that cause Florida’s Lake Jackson to drain at least every 25 years.
This sinkhole is one of two that cause Florida’s Lake Jackson to drain at least every 25 years.
Image used in the Public Domain

While many bodies of water undergo natural cycles of disappearance and reemergence, several industrial disasters have also made lakes disappear or appear. Louisiana's Lake Peigneur represents one of the most infamous of these cases. In 1980, Lake Peigneur was only 11 feet deep at its deepest point but spread across 1,300 acres. It featured an island with a botanical park, several oil rig platforms and salt mines deep beneath the lake.

On November 21, 1980, an oil-drilling team had difficulty removing their drill that got stuck about 1,200 feet below the lake's surface. Suddenly the drilling crew heard loud noises and their platform began tilting. Fearing a total collapse of the oil rig, the workers abandoned the platform. The platform tipped over and, shockingly, disappeared completely under the water. A violent whirlpool quickly developed where the oil rig had been. Other drilling platforms and a dock were sucked in. The direction of the Delcambre Canal, which had flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, was reversed and 11 barges and a tugboat slipped into the whirlpool. Miners in the salt mines 1,500 feet below began to evacuate when water started rushing into the caverns.

As it turned out, a miscalculation had caused the drilling team to work in the wrong spot. A small hole had rapidly expanded as the lake's fresh water flooded in and eroded the mine's salt-rich walls. Miraculously, all 50 miners got out safely and no one was killed. But a shallow, 3.5 billion-gallon, freshwater lake had suddenly disappeared. The reversed Delcambre Canal created a 150-foot waterfall of saltwater, and two days later Lake Peigneur was a 1,300-foot deep saltwater lake. Many new types of plants and wildlife appeared, and nine of the 11 barges bobbed back up to the surface after the crater was filled with saltwater. In the end, Texaco and its drilling partners paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits, but were probably protected from further damages because the catastrophic nature of the events made it difficult to figure out exactly what had happened.

The Salton Sea was created by an environmental disaster but now takes in irrigation runoff and hosts a variety of wildlife.

The Salton Sea in southeastern California is also the result of an environmental disaster. Before the colonization of the American West, the Salton Basin had seen some occasional, natural flooding from the Colorado River. In fact, in 1500, the area flooded to form a body of water 26 times bigger than the current Salton Sea. Later, the area was used by mining companies, set aside for Indian reservations and served as part of the ongoing battle over the region's agricultural water supply. Still, any water that flowed into the basin didn't stay around for long.


In 1905, a canal was created to divert water away from the Colorado River. But poor construction allowed water to breach the canal wall, essentially diverting the river into the Salton Basin. During 1905 and 1906, water continued to flow into the basin before the rupture was closed. The Salton Sea is now California's largest lake, home to many types of birds and fish, but it has continued to be plagued by controversy and rumors of pesticide contamination. However, repeated tests have shown those rumors to be false and massive die-offs of birds and fish are believed to have been due to a bacterial outbreak (one that poses no danger to humans). Despite these deaths, the Salton Sea continues to host many types of wildlife and to serve as a depository for agricultural irrigation runoff. A restoration project is underway to preserve the Sea's delicate ecology and to develop it as a tourist and recreation destination.

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