This 50,000-Year-Old Crater Lake Just Changed Color, And The Mystery Has Left Scientists Stumped

At a remote lake in Maharashtra in Western India, a team of scientists are puzzling over a bizarre mystery. During the Paleolithic era, a meteor landed in this part of the Earth, creating a crater that’s spawned myths and legends for thousands of years. But now, it’s doing something that it’s never done before.

Located some 300 miles from the Indian city of Mumbai, Lonar Lake takes its name from an evil spirit that once fought with the Hindu god Vishnu. And for centuries, it’s been revered as a holy place. But now, it isn’t just tourists and religious pilgrims who are making the trek to these distant shores.

In June 2020 something strange happened to the waters of Lonar Lake. Previously a murky green in color, they shifted to a startling, unnatural hue. And in an attempt to understand this otherworldly transformation, scientists have come up with all sorts of theories. So, what’s really happening at this legendary crater in the midst of the Indian jungle?

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Located at the heart of what’s now the Lonar Wildlife Sanctuary, this ancient crater lies on the Deccan Plateau, which stretches across Southern and Western India. At around 6,000 feet in length, the lake has a surface area of just under half a square mile. And in places, its waters plunge almost 500 feet.

However, perhaps the most intriguing thing about Lonar Lake is the story behind its creation. According to NASA, the body of water was created tens of thousands of years ago. And at first, experts believed that it was volcanic in nature as it’s situated on the Deccan Plateau.

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Then, during the 1970s all that changed. While conducting studies at Lonar Lake, researchers discovered maskelynite in the area – a type of glass that forms where an impact has taken place. And according to NASA, it would have taken a high-speed collision for such a substance to be created.

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Armed with this information, experts concluded that Lonar Lake was in fact a crater caused by a meteorite that struck the Earth. And despite its age, it’s still considered relatively new in geological terms. In fact, the lake remains the sole example of such a recent collision that scientists have detected anywhere in the world.

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According to experts, the meteor that created Lonar Lake was likely traveling at more than 50,000 miles per hour when it crashed into the Earth. And as the years passed, thick vegetation began to grow around the vast crater. In the meantime, it also began to fill with water from a nearby stream, eventually creating a calm, green pool.

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Today, the shores of Lonar Lake are lined with wild trees and shrubs, while farmers grow crops such as papaya, banana and maize on the nearby slopes. Moreover, various flora and fauna thrive in and around the water itself. Keen ornithologists might spot brahminy ducks and barn owls, for example, while deer, gazelle and chinkara live wild in the surrounding forest.

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Unlike the nearby hotspots of Ellora and Ajanta, Lonar Lake is more of an under-the-radar visitor destination. But those who make the four-hour trek from the nearest city, Aurangabad, are rewarded with an incredible sight. In addition, over the years, a number of Hindu temples have sprung up in the area, although many of them stand in ruins today.

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Here, folklore claims that the crater was once the home of an evil spirit named Lonasura, who was the son of a holy seer called Kashyapa. Apparently, the spirit was known for committing malevolent acts, and the Hindu god Vishnu punished Lonasura by banishing him underground. Out of regret, the story goes, Lonasura began to sob and eventually the crater swelled with his tears.

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Today, it’s believed that this legend may have been born from the fact that the water in Lonar Lake is salty, just like tears. In fact, the name Lonasura, as well as that of the nearby town, Lonar, are taken from lavan, the term for salt in the local Marathi language. However, there’s an alternative story about Lonasura and Vishnu that’s associated with the site.

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In this version, Lonasura and Vishnu fought a vicious battle that ended when the lake was filled with the evil spirit’s blood. In recognition of this struggle, a temple was constructed close to the lip of the crater between the 6th and 12th centuries B.C. Known as Daitya Sudan, it’s named after the incarnation that Vishnu took while vanquishing his foe.

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Now located in the center of Lonar, Daitya Sudan is the only one of the lake’s temples that hasn’t fallen into ruin. Decorated with a collection of lewd carvings, its appearance is reminiscent of the famous temples at Khajuraho in the neighboring Madhya Pradesh region. And even today, it remains a remarkable sight.

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Closer to Lonar Lake itself there are more temples, each representing a certain Hindu deity or myth. At Shankar Ganesha, for example, an idol of the god Shiva adorns a building that’s beginning to disappear beneath the murky waters. Meanwhile, the crumbling Ram Gaya is dedicated to another of Vishnu’s avatars, Lord Rama.

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These days, few of Lonar’s 23,000 inhabitants make the journey to worship in ruined temples such as Kamalja Devi, on the shores of the lake. However, during Navratri, a popular Hindu holiday, the place becomes bustling and vibrant. Some pilgrims also still make their way to Gomukh, which marks the spot where the goddess Sita is rumored to have washed herself in the lake’s waters.

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Historically, water has always played an important role in Indic religions such as Hinduism. And as such, it’s hardly a shock that sacred buildings are often located in places where this resource is abundant. Nonetheless, the rich history and legends associated with Lonar Lake suggest that this was a particularly significant place.

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Today, Lonar and the surrounding area are home to a mixture of cultures and religious beliefs, although Hindus still remain in the majority. However, the lake’s spiritual significance may not be enough to protect it forever. According to reports, the land is becoming damaged by heavy fertilizer usage, which is contaminating the water.

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In fact, this part of India has changed drastically over the years, and many of the shifts are leaving Lonar Lake in peril. For example, chemicals are making their way into the water stream, while grazing on deforested land further contributes towards the pollution. Illegal underground works may also be disrupting the source of the lake.

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At certain times of the year, such as during festivals, large numbers of people flock to Lonar Lake. And, unfortunately, many of them leave litter and other pollutants behind. In other instances, careless visitors disturb the fragile ecosystem that’s grown up surrounding the crater. And to top it all off, experts noted in 2017 that the body of water was at risk of drying out.

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Keen to protect Lonar Lake for future generations, the local community have been keeping a close eye on developments. However, in June 2020 observers noticed something that nobody was expecting. Seemingly overnight, the color of the water had altered from green to a vivid, almost fluorescent pink.

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Using satellite images from NASA, experts were able to confirm that Lonar Lake had indeed changed color – and quickly, too. In a photograph dated May 25, 2020, the water is clearly the same green hue that it’s been for years. However, in a snap taken just 16 days later, the difference is clear.

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Before long, everyone from scientists to concerned observers had taken to social media to discuss the strange happenings at Lonar Lake. On Twitter, for example, Gajanan Kharat, a geologist from Maharashtra, explained that the phenomenon had been observed before. However, he pointed out that the 2020 occurrence was far more extreme than in previous instances.

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But what had caused Lonar Lake to change color in such a dramatic fashion? In an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery, a team of researchers moved in to begin studying the strange waters. And according to the region’s deputy conservator of forests, M. N. Khairnar, it looked set to be an exhaustive process.

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“We are observing the phenomenon to such an extent for the first time,” Khairnar told The Times of India in June 2020. “We will collect samples of the lake water for testing and to find the reason behind the occurrence. These samples will be sent to Neeri, Nagpur, and Agarkar Research Institute, Pune.”

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And while researchers are still awaiting the results of the tests, many have already begun to speculate over the source of the vibrant pink color. In a video posted to Twitter on June 11, for example, Kharat proposed a solution. “It’s looking particularly red this year because the water’s salinity has increased,” he said.

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Certainly, analogous incidents have been observed elsewhere in the world at other bodies of water that have turned a rosy hue. In Lake Urmia in Iran, for instance, experts noted that spells of warm weather have resulted in water levels that are lower than normal. And when this happens, salt deposits concentrate within the remaining liquids.

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At such times, when Lake Urmia becomes an intensely salty environment, conditions are ripe for organisms known as Dunaliella algae. Typically, these are green in color – much like the surface of Lonar Lake in the past. However, in warm and saline conditions, they create a layer of carotenoids.

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Over in Melbourne in the Australian state of Victoria, scientist Mark Norman has observed a similar phenomenon in the city’s Westgate Park. In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, he explained the process. “The carotenoid also acts as a filter to protect their chlorophyll, almost like a pair of sunglasses that goes over the chlorophyll cells and aids in photosynthesis,” Norman stated.

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And as well as protecting the algae, this process also has another effect: making the organisms red in color. In Westgate Park, this caused the water to become a shade of pink almost identical to that observed at Lonar Lake. So, might the same phenomena be behind the color shift observed by Kharat and his colleagues?

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According to Kharat, that could well be the case. In the video, he explained, “Salinity in the lake has increased as water level has gone down drastically this year. And it has become warmer, too, resulting in overgrowth of algae. This algae turns reddish in warmer temperatures and hence the lake turned pink overnight.”

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Thankfully, experts believe that the algae, a type of organism known as halobacteria, doesn’t pose a risk to health. Nonetheless, microbiologist Harish Malpani told The Times of India that further study was still needed. “Sudden change in color of water is strange,” he said. “It might be because of microbial activities or could even be human interference. Research should be conducted before making any comments.”

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Within days, the phenomenon at Lonar Lake had drawn the attention of the local authorities. Already concerned about conditions in the area, the High Court of Bombay issued a series of directives aimed at safeguarding the region from further development. At the same time, it also ordered scientists to continue research into the strange occurrence.

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In addition, others have put forward an alternative explanation for Lonar Lake’s pink hue. With much of Maharashtra, along with the rest of India, on lockdown due to coronavirus at the time of the discovery, pollution levels were unusually low. Might this have also played a role in the phenomenon?

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“There wasn’t much human activity due to lockdown, which could have accelerated the change,” Madan Suryaveshi of Maharashtra’s Babasaheb Ambedkar University informed AFP in June 2020. At the moment, however, the precise reason for the color shift remains unclear. So, too, does the nature of the change – and exactly how permanent the pink shade might be.

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At Lake Urmia, it seems, the bacterial reaction that caused the waters to turn red was only a temporary phenomenon. Speaking to The Times of India, local conservationist M. S. Reddy explained, “With monsoon, the water level will increase and water temperatures will go down, turning the lake water back to its normal coloration.”

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In Maharashtra, monsoon period typically begins in June. So, might Lonar Lake go back to its usual color as well once the rain starts falling? Over in Australia, scientists also predicted that the pink lake in Westgate Park will return to normal once wet weather resumes. In fact, Norman pointed out that the cycle happens every year.

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However, it appears as if this phenomenon isn’t always temporary in nature. In Western Australia, the saline Lake Hillier has been pink since at least 1802, when it was first discovered by Europeans. Again, algae are believed to be responsible for the water’s unusual hue.

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In this case, Lake Hillier maintains a strong concentration of salt all year round, which may explain why the pink color is permanent. And that’s far from the only location where colored lakes are an enduring fixture. In fact, there are numerous additional examples in Australia alone, particularly in Victoria’s Murray-Sunset National Park.

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Amazingly, the phenomenon has been spotted all over the planet, from Senegal to Bolivia, Azerbaijan and Spain. And in some places, the red pigments have even been harvested for industrial use. However, Norman warned would-be visitors against taking a plunge in these rosy lakes – apparently the high salt content wouldn’t make for a pleasant swim. “It’s better to look at it than to jump in it,” he told The New York Times.

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