Mono Lake and its tufa towers have served as the backdrop to countless photos and memories, but accidental damage to the vulnerable towers is destroying them.
For more than a million years, California’s Eastern Sierra streams have fed into one of North America’s oldest lakes, Mono Lake, with fresh water laden with salts and minerals carried down from the mountains. With no outlet, water can only leave the basin through evaporation, and the salts and minerals are left behind. As a result, Mono Lake is two and a half times as salty and 80 times as alkaline as ocean water.
Mark Twain famously wrote of Mono, “Its sluggish waters are so strong with alkali that if you only dip the most hopelessly soiled garment into them once or twice, and wring it out, it will be found as clean as if it had been through the ablest of washerwomen’s hands.”
Social media has accelerated the popularity of Mono Lake, especially the illegal activity of climbing on top of the tufa for photos. What many do not realize is that a single step can crush the fragile rock.
Tufa is essentially limestone formed into towers as calcium rich underwater springs mix with lake water rich in carbonates (the stuff in baking soda). A chemical reaction results in calcium carbonate –limestone – which “precipitates” or becomes a fragile solid over time. So a single step by a visitor can crush the tufa with no way to replace the damage. As the lake level has dipped, so has nature’s ability to make striking tufa towers.
This popular attraction only forms underwater and the towers are now exposed because of water diversions that began in 1941. Through court battles, the water diversions were eventually curtailed leaving the tufa towers standing, beautiful, enticing and vulnerable. But the lake will not return to its historic levels any time soon so 30-foot tufa towers will not likely form in the near future.
“Mono Lake is renowned for the variety and abundance of its tufa deposits. Visitors and scientists from the world over come here to walk amongst, and to study, these bizarre yet beautiful spires, domes, and sheaths of limestone,” said Scott Stine, a scientist and retired college professor who’s been studying these remarkable formations for more than 30 years.
Some tufa at the lake are thousands of years old dating back to the ice age. The most vulnerable tufa is located at the lake’s south west corner and is only a few hundred years old.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve was established by the Legislature in 1981 in an attempt to protect these rare formations, the most notable in North America.
In addition to being irreplaceable, tufa is also home to many nesting birds, reptiles, rodent and insects. Mono’s tufa towers host the largest tufa-nesting colony of Violet-green swallows in the world. There are other species of birds that use the nooks and crannies of the tufa for nesting as well, such as Rock wrens and Say’s phoebes. weasels, mice, lizards and many insects call Mono’s tufa towers their home as well.
Boaters regularly violate the posted 200-foot closure around offshore tufa towers which are also home to nesting osprey. So the towers are assaulted from land and water. The presence of humans on the towers drives out these critters and demeans the tufa and wildlife habitat. Additionally, some visitors chip off tufa as souvenirs.
Unfortunately, it’s not just a visitor here and there that is inconsiderate with the tufa. Many towers now have paths and steps ground into them and pieces broken off. Others are losing their jagged edges as feet pound down the calcium carbonate. These intrusions lead others to illegally climb the tufa and the illegal activity and damage snowballs.
Most disheartening for protectors of the tufa is most tufa climbers ignore prominent no climbing signs and clear messages to stay off the tufa conveyed by not only California State Parks staff but those of the U.S. Forest Service (which jointly manages recreation at the lake) and non-profit Mono Lake Committee on-site and at nearby visitor centers. Perhaps that is why those who cut themselves on the jagged rock rarely report injuries.
Protecting the tufa with a physical presence is difficult. Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve is more than 50,000 acres with more than 220,000 feet of shoreline. While rangers and volunteers patrol the area, they can’t be everywhere at once.
Tufa posers can climb a tower, take their photo and be on their way in minutes; the only evidence a social media post.
Dave Marquart, a Park Interpreter at the Natural Reserve, remembers a nationally known photographer once boasted in a photography magazine that he “climbed to the top of one of the tallest tufa towers to get a great sunrise shot”.
“The average visitor, when caught climbing on the tufa, either didn’t get the connection between the no climbing signs and the actual tufa on the ground or, as numerous as they are, say they didn’t see the signs,” said Marquart.
The best outcome would be for visitors to use common sense and enjoy these weird, whacky tufa towers without damaging them so that they can be appreciated by visitors long into the future. It’s a matter of respecting nature’s work.