World-Famous Lake Is Shrinking Amid Heat

Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, is receding in South America
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 10, 2023 4:00 PM CDT
Winter Heat Wave Dries Up Parts of Famed Lake Titicaca
A partial view of Lake Titicaca in Huarina, Bolivia, Thursday, July 27, 2023. The lake's low water level is having a direct impact on the local flora and fauna and is affecting local communities that rely on the natural border between Peru and Bolivia for their livelihood.   (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

South America's largest lake is facing a severe decline in water due to a record winter heat wave, with some parts drying up completely. This dramatic drop in water levels in Lake Titicaca, CNN reports, has impacted tourism, fishing, and agriculture, all essential livelihoods for the local indigenous communities there. Lake Titicaca is known for its scenic beauty, making it a popular stop among tourists visiting the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes. Globally, it's the highest navigable lake in the world at an elevation of 12,500 feet. The region is home to over three million people who rely on the lake for their economic well-being. Along with warming temperatures from El Niño, experts cite climate change as a factor that's intensifying these drastic water level changes.

"While the lake's fluctuations have been linked to climate variability and natural oscillations, the exacerbating influence of climate change heightens the need for sustained management strategies," Connor Baker, an analyst at International Crisis Group, tells CNN. This is part of a growing trend. A 2023 study found that over half the world's lakes have lost the equivalent of 17 Lake Meads worth of water. AFP reports that Lake Titicaca is within 10 inches of its lowest recorded level, set in 1996. The unprecedented winter heat wave caused increased evaporation, while precipitation levels in the region have been 49% lower than average from August 2022 to March 2023, which includes the rainy season that usually replenishes the lake.

A study analyzing satellite images from 1992 to 2020 revealed that Lake Titicaca loses about 120 million metric tons of water every year, primarily due to changes in precipitation and runoff. As a result, the lake is currently about 12 feet lower than its all-time high mark in 1986, notes AFP. This decline is affecting fishing communities already struggling with pollution and overfishing. Agriculture is also suffering due to drought, affecting staple crops like quinoa, potatoes, and oats, as well as livestock feed. And the tourist industry has taken a hit, with boats used for tourism stranded as water levels recede.

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The situation is particularly concerning for the marginalized Puno region in Peru, and for indigenous communities like the Uros, who live on reed-made floating islands on the lake. With warmer temperatures expected to persist until February 2024, experts emphasize the need for long-term strategies to protect the communities dependent on Lake Titicaca. (Meanwhile in Utah, environmental groups are suing the state to keep the Great Salt Lake from drying up.)

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