What (and Where) Are Salt Flats?

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Did you know that satellites, car racing, flamingos, movie sets, and salt flats all have something in common? We’ll explain how in a moment, but first, it’s helpful to understand what salt flats are and how they came to be. Salt flats, which are also known as salt plains or pans, are vast, flat expanses covered in salt and other minerals. These fascinating geological formations are typically white in color due to their high salt content, and were once covered by water thousands of years ago. You’ll find them in arid, desert-like regions around the world where water has dried up and left behind minerals. Some salt flats are so massive that they're visible from space, and are used for industrial salt production; many are accessible, and offer breathtaking photo opps and recreational activities. These fascinating four salt flats offer more than just salt.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Car driving through water in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Credit: Onfokus/ iStock

The Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flat) in Bolivia ranks as the world's largest salt flat, covering 4,086 square miles (which is about the size of Hawaii’s Big Island). The flats formed when the water in an enormous, mineral-laden lake called Lago Minchin evaporated about 15,000 years ago. As with most salt flats, the area has an enclosed drainage basin that prevents minerals from being washed away. The minerals that were left behind formed a thick, solid crust, which is up to 33 feet deep in some areas.

Located at roughly 12,000 feet above sea level, the flats have two distinct seasons — both of which offer stunning photo opps. During the wet season (December through April), a thin layer of water covers the flats. The water transforms the dazzling white flats into a mirror that reflects the clouds and sun at various angles throughout the day. However, the real show begins at night. Due to the flat’s high elevation, the water reflects the moon and stars.

During the dry season (May through November), an endless field of pentagonal and hexagonal-shaped “tiles” appear on the flats. Although they look like cracks, they’re shapes that form on top of the crust as water evaporates and leaves behind deposits. You can drive on the flats during the dry season. Visitors come up with all kinds of creative photos by playing around with the reflections and depth perceptions. You can even stay in hotels made entirely of salt blocks such as the Hotel de Sal Luna Salada or the Hotel Palacio de Sal.

So what do satellites have to do with Salar de Uyuni? In addition to being visible from space, scientists have discovered that the exceptionally flat, highly reflective areas are ideal for testing and calibrating newly launched satellites.

Bonneville Salt Flats, United States

Bonneville Salt Flats, United States
Credit: Mlenny/ iStock

If you’ve ever wondered why Pontiac named an automobile built from 1957 through 2005 a Bonneville, here’s the answer. Pontiac chose the name Bonneville because race car and motorcycle drivers have been breaking land speed records (the highest speed achieved on land by a human in a vehicle) here since 1914. Once  speed junkies realized the flats were drivable, the area began to host annual racing events. Instead of racing each other, the drivers race the clocks in a variety of vehicles — some powered by jet engines. Some of the fastest speeds ever recorded at Bonneville exceed 760 miles per hour, which is faster than the speed of sound. Race season occurs in the hot, dry summer and early fall months since water covers the flats during cooler months.

Located near the Nevada state line, the Bonneville Salt Flats expand across roughly 46 square miles. The flats formed from an ancient, enormous, 1,000-foot-deep lake about 17,000 years ago. Today, these  flats are open to the public. Due to excess use and mineral mining operations in the area, the flats have been closed to racing a few times in recent years.

Bonaire

Flamingos in the water in Bonaire
Credit: Sven Jakubith/ Shutterstock

Unlike many of the other salt flats around the world that tend to be inland and far from coastline, Bonaire is a small island surrounded by the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Bonaire lies about 50 miles north of Venezuela and about 120 miles east of Aruba. It is part of the island group known as the “ABC Islands” including Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao. This 112-square-mile island municipality in the Kingdom of the Netherlands has been a hub of salt production since 1639. Salty lakes, which are called pekelmeers in Dutch, cover most of the southern end of the island.

Colonists coveted the salt crystals produced in the lakes as the seawater flowed in and then evaporated. They needed copious amounts of salt to preserve fish, which they caught in abundance in the Baltic and North Sea cod fisheries. The Dutch exported salt worldwide.

Today, global producer Cargill leases 13% of the salt flats area and uses wind, sun, and time to convert seawater into high-quality salt crystals. If you fly or cruise to Bonaire, one of the first things you’ll notice are the enormous pyramids of salt awaiting shipment around the world via a large pier at the end of the island. Cargill allows visitors to snap photos with the pyramids.

Visitors flock to Bonaire for its natural beauty, scuba diving, and flamingos. A flamingo sanctuary lies adjacent to Cargill’s production area. You can’t visit the sanctuary, but you can get close enough to photograph the birds as they preen and feed in the shallow waters. Bonaire’s salt flats are one of only four major breeding sites for Caribbean flamingos. At one point, due to human activity, only about 1,500 of the large, pink birds lived on Bonaire, but today their numbers reach 15,000 to 20,000. The birds get their beautiful pink hue from eating the algae, brine shrimp, and other small organisms that contain the red-orange pigment beta carotene. Without sufficient beta carotene in their diet, flamingos are white or only slightly pinkish.

Chott el Djerid, Tunisia

Daybreak Chott El Jerid Salt Lake
Credit: BrettCharlton/ iStock

Any Star Wars fan will remember the dusty, dry planet Tatooine, where Luke Skywalker grew up with his aunt and uncle. The famous igloo-shaped dome house and surrounding structures still stand today at Chott el Djerid in Tunisia. You can tour the Lars homestead and visit several other filming locations in the area, including the canyon where the Jawas and Tusken raiders scenes were filmed. The Star Wars movies weren’t the only ones filmed here. Crews for Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark and The English Patient also shot scenes in the canyon.

At about 2,700 square miles in size, Chott el Djerid is the largest salt pan in the Sahara Desert. The salt pan’s name “Chott” means a lake that dries out during summer, while “el Djerid” means “palm leaf.” Near Chott el Djerid lies a large region filled with date palm trees. Its barrenness is alluring in its own way, but the harsh desert climate and lack of freshwater make it a challenging place to live. Armed with a full tank of gas and plenty of water, you can drive across the flats since there is a road where you’ll see small, salty lakes of various colors.

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