Soap Lake is a permanently stratified lake consisting of two separate water layers which have not mixed for over two thousand years.
Lake is believed to have been formed during the Great Missoula Ice Age floods more than 10,000 years ago, the last in a chain of six lakes dredged by the powerful ice flow that carved the
Eastern Washington scablands and the
River Basin as far south as
Portland, OR .
Because the lake’s highly saline and alkaline content has been preserved in the lower of two water layers that never mix, scientists have found unique life forms growing there may be descendants of aquatic life l00 centuries ago. The rare conditions are found in only a few other places on earth, including the
Dead Sea ,
, Russia, and
Mono Lake, CA .
Although both layers are quite alkaline and lack significant amounts of oxygen, the lower layer is much more saline and oxygen deprived. In addition, this lake has concentrations of sulfide generally considered toxic for most life forms. In spite of the extreme chemistry of this environment, the lake supports thriving communities of algae, zooplankton and bacteria. A microbial observatory, developed through a 2002 National Science Foundation grant, has been allowing for the study and quantification of the ecology and metabolic capabilities of the relatively unknown microorganisms that thrive in this extreme environment, and the discovery of several new microorganisms.
Since the 1950s the chemical profile of SL has changed significantly. Some scientists predict that within 80 to 100 years it will be a fresh water lake if steps aren’t taken to preserve this natural resource. The Soap Lake Conservancy supported its science fellows in acquiring and establish the scientific information necessary to protect the unique qualities of the lake and to influence economic recovery for the Soap Lake area. Members of the scientific advisory board applied for and received a National Science Foundation grant ($840,500) to begin studying the microbial diversity of SL. Amidst opposition from developers and some local businesses who saw resource protection as harmful to an already fragile economic environment, the Conservancy convened a 2002 Saline Lakes Science Conference to launch the new microbial observatory.