Extending from northern Kenya into southern Ethiopia, Lake Turkana is a body of water with a handful of distinctions. Surrounded by arid, harsh terrain, Lake Turkana is the largest permanent desert lake in the world—stretching almost 250 kilometers (155 miles) from north to south. The lake is also known for its striking turquoise color, leading to its nickname, the "Jade Sea."
But it is Lake Turkana's unique chemistry that has drawn researchers to the region. Two of these scientists are Dr. Thure Cerling, a University of Utah geology and biology professor, and Dr. Richard Yuretich, who teaches geosciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Lake Turkana possesses water that is saline, which means it contains salt. The lake is also known for its high alkalinity. An alkaline liquid has a pH of higher than 7. According to Cerling, Lake Turkana's water is 9.3 to 9.4 on a pH scale. Lake Turkana is the largest alkaline lake in the world.
Yuretich first traveled to Lake Turkana in the mid-1970s to study how sediments on the bottom of the lake were reacting with the chemistry of the lake water. He explains how the lake's position in a rift valley contributes to its salinity and alkalinity.
"It's in one of these geologic areas of the rift valley, and the rift valleys tend to have a lot of these volcanic rocks that have been spewed forth over the past several million years that are very rich in alkalis themselves," he says. "When they weather out, they form these naturally alkaline solutions, and then it gets even more alkaline as the water is concentrated by evaporation."
Species of Lake Turkana
Even though Lake Turkana is very alkaline, it is able to support a fish population.
"The lake is in this interesting interval where it is too saline and alkaline for mollusks but not too saline and alkaline for fish," Cerling says.
Mollusks, such as sea snails, do not thrive in Lake Turkana because they need calcium to build their calcium carbonate shells, and calcium is not prevalent in the African lake.
"Lake Turkana is so low in calcium that today basically mollusks—snails and those kind of things—have a very difficult time making a living," Cerling says. "So they are basically all gone. It does not have some of the normal fauna of snails and clams and that sort of thing. The fresher lakes do, but Lake Turkana doesn't."
Still, the lake supports a vibrant fishery. The most notable catch is probably the Nile perch, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. Nile perch can grow up to 2 meters (6 feet) and can weigh up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds).
Yuretich recalls being amazed by the size of Nile perch.
"At the time I was there, the largest perch that I have ever seen existed in Lake Turkana," he says.
Forming Lake Turkana
The Turkana Basin wasn't always filled with water.
"The reason for Lake Turkana is because Mount Kulal at the south end of the lake is essentially a dam," Cerling says. "The Omo River used to flow all the way out to the Indian Ocean, and then this big volcano got in the way of things about 2 million years ago.
"So since then the Omo is blocked from going to the Indian Ocean. Sometimes it goes into Lake Turkana. Sometimes it switches and runs over into the Nile [River]. Sometimes it fills up the lake basin and it flows out to the Nile. Other times, it is drier . . . like it is now."
Like Yuretich, Cerling first started working in the Lake Turkana region as a graduate student in the 1970s. At that time, he was interested in learning about the chemistry of the modern lake in an attempt to understand the chemistry of the ancient lake known as a fossil lake. The Lake Turkana region is rich in fossil remains and has been the site of major discoveries that have helped scientists gain a greater understanding of human evolution.
Cerling's focus has changed several times since the '70s.
"Some of the questions have been answered, and I've moved on to work on other problems," he says. "I've been involved in things from the general mapping of the stratigraphy to the dating to the correlation of volcanic ashes to understanding the different environments. That's really what my main focus is. Just trying to use whatever geochemical footprints are left behind. How can we use those to understand what the environments for human evolution were like?"
It's a project where he is collaborating with the Leakeys, a renowned family of paleontologists, and their Turkana Basin Institute.
"I've been working with Richard and Meave Leakey on aspects of trying to understand the environments of human evolution," Cerling says. "So what are the environments like that humans were evolving in? I've been involved in trying to understand the chemistry of the modern lake and the chemistry of the fossil lake. What modern soils are like and what fossil soils are like. And what modern animals eat and what fossil animals would eat. So I've had my foot in the modern lake and the fossil lake for quite a long time."