Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pink Playa Phenomenon

westOn Highway 50 looking west, with the Huck Salt Road turnoff just behind that little hill sticking south into the playa.

While driving through Four Mile Flat on Highway 50, between the turnoff to Sand Mountain on the east end and the dirt road to the Huck Salt Mine in the middle of the flat, MOH and I recently came across a somewhat common playa phenomena, wherein bacteria growing in the salty brine and partly dried-out salt crust left behind after the water evaporates (Google Maps).

Fortunately, there is a regulation road sign for Huck Salt Road on the west side of Fourmile Flat, so you won't get lost...
Huck Salt Road
Sand Mountain turnoff ...and a sign at the turnoff to Sand Mountain on the east side of Fourmile Flat.

east
Pinkish salt flats as seen from Highway 50 looking east toward the turnoff to Sand Mountain.

red
pink
southThe three photos above show closer views of the pink to red to orange salt on the south side of Highway 50.


water
more And two more views, above, one showing some actual water. In my experience, the pinkish salt does not occur year-round. It appears to need the right combination of water and evaporation, and possibly the right temperature.

The color is caused by salt-loving bacteria which are known as halophilic bacteria, part of the ancient archaebacteria kingdom or Domain Archae. Wayne's Word has this - and a lot more - to say about halophilic bacteria:

The bacteria produce a red carotenoid pigment which is similar to that found in tomatoes, red peppers, pink flamingos, and in many colorful flowers and autumn leaves. [Flamingos actually get their carotenoid pigments from their diet of shrimp and other crustaceans.] Carotenoid pigments are also the source of Beta-carotene, an important antioxidant and the precursor of vitamin A.
References:
Armstrong, W. P., 1981, The Pink Playas of Owens Valley, Fremontia 9: pages 3-10.

Armstrong, W. P., 1981, Why Owens Lake is Red, Desert Magazine, May 1981, pages 22-26.

The Halohandbook.


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