We’ve covered mysteries before on this website. Well, here’s one from 150 years ago:
The emigrants, coming west on the Applegate Trail to Oregon in the 1870s, were puzzled. The trail was, of course, a seemingly unending set of wagon-wheel ruts stretching from the jumping-off points in the Midwest over deserts and mountains and all sorts of obstacles that seemed insurmountable, but weren’t.
But this one seemed impossible. Had the wagons before them really plunged directly into the enormous lake that lay before them? The ruts led directly into the water, and there was no sign of them having come out again.
It was miles across – the other side lay almost invisible on the horizon, much too far to float a caulked wagon. And yes, it was deep – far too deep to ford.
There was nothing for it but a trip around the lake, since the western sky lay on the other side. And so, around they went – making a detour of something like 100 miles.
On the other side, they found the wagon ruts again. They emerged from the water and headed on westward toward the Cascades. Once arrived at the West Coast, none of the previous emigrants knew anything about any lake there.
Was it aliens who came down to Earth to put a lake where there was none before? Did the earlier emigrants have covered wagon submarine technology (and very short term memories)? Maybe it was a very localized, very short-term Ice Age – a glacier snuck down from the Cascades and into the valley in the middle of the night and then melted without anyone noticing. What about that?
SPOILER ALERT: None of those theories is true. Anyone who would come up with these ridiculous ideas should be ashamed of themselves. Oh, wait – I came up with them. Hmmm. What I meant to say is: those are all good theories that are worthy of scientific exploration. Unfortunately, VIIRS wasn’t around in the 1870s. Plus, this mystery has already been solved. As our source explains:
It remained a mystery until, several years later, a drought struck and the lake dried up again.
What we’re talking about is Goose Lake, which is at times the largest lake that’s at least partially in Oregon. (In terms of surface area, not volume.) It’s right on the border between Oregon and California. When Goose Lake is at its fullest, it has a surface area of 147 square miles (380 km2), but it’s only 26 ft (8 m) deep. Maybe, if the emigrants weren’t so cowardly, they could have walked across it (although they might have gotten stuck in the mud). It would have saved 100 miles of extra walking (although they might have gotten stuck in the mud).
As you are probably well aware, California and Oregon are under a long-lasting, extreme drought. So, if you live near Goose Lake, it’s probably no surprise that the lake has dried up again. And, since this is 2015, VIIRS can tell us something about it this time.
Have you ever played one of those “spot the differences” games? (Don’t play them at work, or you’ll never get anything done.) Well, here’s a “spot the differences” game you can play at work – at least if your work involves detecting evidence of drought.
Here’s what Goose Lake looked like three years ago, according to VIIRS Natural Color imagery:
VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (20:40 UTC 15 July 2012)
Note that it’s not as dark in color as the other lakes because it is so shallow. Now, here’s the same scene just last week:
VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (21:40 UTC 16 July 2015)
Notice anything different? Now, for this spot-the-differences game, we’re going to ignore clouds, because they are always going to be different between the two images, difficult to count, and irrelevant to this discussion. (Except that clouds can obscure the view of a lake and can cast shadows that look like lakes.)
Since I labelled Goose Lake on those images, you have no excuse for not spotting that difference. Besides, if you can’t see that 147 square miles of lake surface are missing from the second image, you have no hope to see any of the other differences.
I counted at least 20 lakes or reservoirs that are present in the 2012 image that have dried up and vanished in the 2015 image. Plus, there are about as many lakes or reservoirs that have noticeably shrunk since 2012. Can you spot them all? Can you see more than I did?
After you’ve declared yourself done, compare your results with mine:
Comparison of the above VIIRS Natural Color images of Goose Lake.
As always, click on it to see the full resolution image. I’ve marked with red arrows those lakes that are visible in the 2012 image that are not visible in the 2015 image. Yellow arrows indicate the lake has lost surface area (but not totally vanished) between 2012 and 2015. And, there are a few spots that look like surface water visible in the 2015 image that are not present in 2012 – I’ve marked those with green arrows. There are a couple of lakes visible in the 2012 image that are covered by clouds in the 2015 image. Those are left unmarked. I’ve also labelled a burn scar left over from a pretty big wildfire in south-central Oregon visible in 2012 that has since disappeared. That’s the main non-lake, non-cloud related difference between the two images.
Most notably, Upper Alkali Lake (southeast of Goose Lake) dried up, which you should have noticed without me pointing it out. Drews Reservoir on the northwest side of Goose Lake in Oregon appears to have dried up, as does New Year Lake right across the border from Upper Alkali Lake in Nevada. Thompson Reservoir (the northernmost red arrow) looks bone dry and Gerber Reservoir (west of Drews Reservoir) has very little water left. The eastern half of Clear Lake Reservoir is now empty and the western half is significantly reduced in size. Three big reservoirs (lakes) on the southern edge of the image have also lost quite a bit of water (Trinity Lake, Shasta Lake and Eagle Lake).
Even if you don’t care that a bunch of salty, alkaline lakes in rural Jefferson (as they might prefer you to call it) have dried up, you should care about the reservoirs. And not just for the boating and other water recreation activities, which are now hazardous. When towns run out of water, prime agricultural land lays fallow, and Tom Selleck gets in trouble with the law, you know things are serious.
The reservoirs closer to central California are down quite a bit as well, and these impact a lot of people. Use your honed-in spot-the-difference skills in these VIIRS I-2 (0.865 µm) images from the same dates and times as the above images:
VIIRS I-2 image (20:40 UTC 15 July 2012)
VIIRS I-2 image (21:40 UTC 16 July 2015)
I-2 is one of the components of the Natural Color imagery (the green component). What makes it good for this purpose is that land and, particularly, vegetation are highly reflective at this wavelength, so they appear bright. Water is absorbing, so it appears black (or nearly so if the water’s dirty or shallow). It also has 375 m resolution at nadir. If you click to the full resolution versions of the above images, you can see that most of the reservoirs have lost quite a bit of surface area between 2012 and 2015.
If you’re too lazy, or have poor eyesight, click on this image below to better compare the two images:
Comparison of VIIRS I-2 images from the same dates and times as above
One more point that needs to be made: 375 m resolution at nadir is good for weather satellites like VIIRS, but the fact that you can see the loss of water in these images is testimony to how bad this drought is!
As you may or may not know, the resolution of VIIRS in these images degrades from 375 m at nadir to 750 m at the edge of the swath. As a reasonable approximation, that’s means each pixel is a quarter mile to a half mile wide. That means each pixel of missing water represents between 40 and 160 acres. We’ll say 100 acres, given that these images were taken roughly halfway between nadir and edge of scan. If the water was only 1 foot deep in these pixels, that would be a loss of 100 acre-feet. That’s 32.5 million gallons of water. (By the way, the average household uses between 0.5 and 1 acre-foot per year in water.)
Multiply the number of pixels that have lost water by 100 to get the area in acres. Multiply that by the average depth of the water lost to get the volume in acre-feet. And then multiply that by 325,852 gallons per acre-foot and that’s a lot of gallons of missing water!
(In case you’re interested, this PDF document says the average depth of Goose Lake is 8 ft. At 147 sq. mi. of surface area, that’s 245 billion gallons of water gone, give or take.)