Turkey's Lake Salada with likely clues to Mars gains unwanted fame

Lake Salada, turkey: A Turkish lake with azure waters and white sands that NASA believes hides secrets about Mars threatens to become too famous for its own good.

When US scientists started poking around in preparation for the Perseverance rover mission, which has been beaming back videos from Mars since February, Lake Salda gained international renown.

Before landing, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory also posted an image of the pristine lake on its website, claiming that it could mimic what an "aqueous" Mars looked like billions of years ago.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has chosen the 4,370-hectare (16.9-square-mile) lake in Turkey's southwest as part of a project to build more green spaces for public use.

The news is a disaster for local activists and lawyers, who believe that the combined impact of NASA and Erdogan's interest will result in a flood of visitors.

Campaigners warn that the sea of humanity splashing about in its waters could ruin the very environment that made the lake unique in the first place.

"The lake's existence is jeopardized if millions of people visit," Lake Salda Preservation Association head Gazi Osman Sakar said.

'It's alive' 

The lake is best known for the White Islands habitat, which features brilliant sands and endemic flora and fauna such as the Salda seaweed fish.

There are also minerals of various origins. One of them, hydromagnesite, is thought to be similar to carbonate minerals discovered in Jezero Crater, a former lake on Mars that the rover is currently exploring.

According to NASA, the hydromagnesite sediments along Lake Salda's shoreline "are thought to have eroded from large mounds called 'microbialites' — rocks created with the support of microbes.

This all contributes to the mystery of potential life on Mars, which existed in some microbial form a very long time ago.

Around the world, there are numerous tectonic lakes like Salda.

But, according to geology engineer Servet Cevni, what distinguishes Salda is the lake's transformation into a closed ecosystem with its own living mechanism.

IMAGE COURTESY OF MARRIOT BONVOY 

"Because it's alive, it's so sensitive to outside interventions," Cevni told AFP.

The interference, however, has already begun in the form of nine small buildings that have appeared near a planned People's Garden by the lake.

Some of the white sand has already been shifted from the White Islands region to another called People's Beach for road development, according to Sakar.

"The project should be canceled," Sakar said. "The lake cannot be protected while it's used."

Court case 

Swimming is prohibited on the White Islands, but it is permitted in other areas.

To protect the lake's ecology, Sakar's association wants swimming to be prohibited entirely. Instead, he suggests constructing observation posts from which tourists can view the lake.

"If single-cell organisms die, Salda is finished," the engineer Cevni agreed. "Those White Islands won't be renewed, that white structure won't come together."

The damage thus far can be recovered in 150 to 200 years if people do not destroy it further, Cevni said, adding: "If we do, it won't ever recover."

The Lake Salda Preservation Association's legal bid to halt the green spaces project was denied in court.

Sakar is appealing the decision and lobbying UNESCO to add Salda to the list of world heritage sites.

"Salda is dying," Sakar announced.

However, activists are not the only ones who are concerned.

Aysel Cig, a goat-herder who lives in a village near the lake, said things were better before Salda became popular.

"Our lake, our village was much cleaner three, five years ago," she said.

Responsible tourism 

However, in addition to dirt and foreign species, tourists bring cash, which the locals around Lake Salda appreciate.

Suleyman Kilickan, 60, worked in a cafe by the lake with plenty of outdoor seating that employed 30 people before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The NASA mission increased interest in the lake significantly, according to Kilickan, who noted that the majority of his visitors were foreigners who seemed to be respectful of the lake.

"If there's tourism, there's life," Kilickan said.

"I would encourage tourism," he said, emphasizing the importance of ensuring visitors act responsibly.

The environment ministry announced last month that the number of tourists to the White Islands region will be limited to 570,000 per year.

Nearly 1.5 million people visited the lake in 2019, with 800,000 coming during lulls in coronavirus restrictions last year.

The proposed limit, according to Nazli Oral Erkan of the Burdur Bar Association's Environment Committee, is insufficient to protect the lake.

"Salda is like a natural museum," she said.

COVER IMAGE COURTESY TRT WORLD

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