Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

Mono Lake in High Country News

High-Country-News-with-Mono-IMG_4143You may have noticed that our favorite lake made an appearance in the latest issue of High Country News! Subscribers, check out the article online or in your print edition; non-subscribers can read the full article online in late December.

Reporter Madeleine Nash paid Mono Lake a visit at the beginning of last summer and explored the basin with scientist Scott Stine and many others. She walked the lakeshore and talked with Geoff, Lisa, Greg, and other Mono Lake Committee staff about big-picture philosophical water questions, including the regional impacts of climate change on Mono Lake. Her perceptive and well-written piece homes in on the issues that are shaping the challenges that lie ahead for the Committee and Mono Lake:

“Long after this dry spell ends, the worries it has awakened will shadow the future. How will Mono Lake fare in a world in which the carbon-loaded climate threatens to become unhinged, raising the specter of droughts more profound than any we’ve ever experienced? Will it stand as a shining example of how people can use natural resources without destroying them? Or will it be regarded as a lesson in limits, so that the best we can hope for is to keep this strange inland sea in a liminal state, neither optimally full nor desperately empty?”


  1. As a 44 year environmental activist and 35 year member of the MLC, I welcome all news media attention to the ecology of Mono Lake, to its beauty, to the history of efforts by the MLC, and to ongoing issues of conservation of the natural world, of which Mono Lake is a prime example.

    That said, I wish that Madeleine Nash had not resorted to unscientific alarmism in her statement (“How will Mono Lake fare in a world in which the carbon-loaded climate threatens to become unhinged…”). There is no such thing as “carbon-loaded climate.” There is no such thing as global or regional climate becoming “unhinged.” Mono Lake has withstood global warming and global cooling for more than 500,000 years. None of it was unhinged.

    No, Madeleine, it is not the climate (nor carbon dioxide) that threatens Mono Lake. It is the voracious appetite for water and the resultant waterway diversions, by humans, that threatens Mono Lake. It is the destruction, by humans, not The Climate, of bird habitat up and down migratory pathways that threatens the birds that return to Mono Lake.

    • Jean, thank you for your comments and your commitment to Mono Lake. You are correct that Mono Lake has withstood large climate fluctuations in the past, and that excessive water diversions were its primary threat over the last 60 years. Unfortunately, due to that artificial half-century drought caused by excessive water diversions, Mono Lake is at an already-reduced level that makes it susceptible to severe impacts from extreme drought, as Madeleine Nash described in her HCN article. Decision 1631 protects it from the historic droughts–historic climate was used in the modeling–but in recent years we are seeing climate outside the historical range and Mono Lake’s level lower than would be predicted based on the historic period. According to the Committee’s modeling, an extended drought with runoff near 73% of average (e.g. 1989 repeated over and over) could result in Mono Lake eventually stabilizing near 6373-6374 feet above sea level. For an even drier scenario (e.g. Medieval Climatic Anomaly), the lake could drop much lower than anything previously seen, with catastrophic impacts. Since no diversions are allowed below 6377, the primary threat in this case would be a multi-decade drought–but certainly exacerbated, as you point out, by historic diversions. Even if such a worst-case scenario does occur, and this drought lasts another decade or century, the Committee will always be here working to protect the Mono Basin’s irreplaceable natural wonders in the best way possible.

  2. Thanks Jean Brocklebank for your response. Just as political fear mongering among the far right is occurring and can have a profound negative impact, it is all too easy to raise a specter of total disaster from the effects of global warming and climate change. Since the “environmental movement” began in the 70’s there have been many dire predictions that have never come to pass. Maybe they were exaggerated to begin with or maybe changes in regulation averted the worst, or maybe an evolution in behavior changed the outcome . It’s convenient to have someone or something to blame (carbon and carbon producers – aren’t we all?) but IMO Instilling fear doesn’t motivate people – hope and a plan does. That’s what I like about the MLC – they are actually doing something that has a positive effect in the real world using actual data and action that is in alignment with nature.

  3. Jean B, Madeleline Nash was very accurate in her useage of the term Carbon Loaded Climate. Perhaps it is time for you to do more research on Climate Change and it’s probable effects on the West. NASA, Columbia U, and Colgate collaborated on an extensive study on the collosal amounts of Carbon being ejected into the atmosphere and what that means for weather in the Western U.S. The study released in Feb 2015 stated clearly that if the current level of carbon emissions continues that by the year 2050 there will be an 80 to 85% probability of a 30yr drought for the West. A 30 yr drought would indeed have an adverse affect on Mono Lake and its ecosystems…( our tiny little 4 yr drought pales in comparison) Paleoclimatology reveals that one has to go back approx 600,000 years to find a comparable spike in carbons emissions to that which is occurring now. That carbon spike took about 1500 years to develop the spike we are in today has taken about 100 years…

  4. I totally agree with Jean. I am really getting tired of all the climate change predictions. Give me money from grants and I will tell you what you want to hear.

  5. Sure Bob, but what about the survey of the entire G20s climate scientists conducted in 2012.? The results were that 99.9% of the entire global climate science community said climate change is being accelerated by man and carbon emissions are The central catalyst. I guess the 99.9% of all global climatologists are completely wrong and they are just gonna say anything for a grant…I am sorry but it is an irrefutable fact anthropogenic climate change is a reality…

  6. Hi Friends of Mono Lake ~

    In response to the comments about what I should do to understand climate change, I want to say that I have studied the issue very carefully.

    As for the 99% of a “global science community” I will say two things. There are questions about the methodology of such polling; most importantly, we don’t do science that way. We do science by the scientific method.

    I’ll stick with my original comment about what I saw as misuse of terms in Madeleine’s article.

    Long Live Mono Lake :o]

  7. Jean, so now you are making a sweeping statement about a study you have not even seen much less examined its methodology. Please…

  8. The high and growing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, which cannot be explained as coming from natural sources, have been determined by scientific methods. The kinds of energy-trapping effects of greenhouse gases such as CO2 in the atmosphere have been determined by scientific methods. The much higher rises in temperatures toward the poles over a relatively few years have been determined by scientific methods. Sea level rise has been determined by scientific methods. The overall increase in the melting of polar ice in recent years and the various effects that is having on numerous phenomena from shoreline erosion to decline in a number of species of large vertebrates have been determined by scientific methods. The almost explosive threat of methane release–methane (CH4) is a far more potent greenhouse gas than already troublesome CO2–due to trends developing in permafrost melting has been determined by scientific methods. The connection between the carbon-loaded atmosphere (again determined by measurement of carbon-containing molecules) and increasing ocean acidification has been determined by scientific methods.

    Scientific methods are also used to establish correlations in time and degree of change. Just because the connecting details of the mechanisms have not been worked out does not mean the connections are not there. Probabilities are also worked out by scientific methods. Just because there is not a 100 percent certainty of a postulated connection between phenomena or behind a prediction does not mean the best science to date is not involved or that the connections and predictions are not real. It would be unethical for scientists, especially natural scientists, to withhold reports on their observations and analyses and only state things of which they are 100 percent certain.

    The climate change that is happening by actual measurement and the near-certainty of the strengthening, acceleration, and increased volatility of global climate change in the future only worsen problems caused by shorter-term vagaries of the weather and anthropogenic mistakes such as misuse and overuse of water resources and degradation of natural plant and animal populations in the arid inland West.