The World’s Smallest and Largest Underground Lakes

Photo courtesy of John Karakatsanis Travelgrove

Did you know that 71% of the earth’s surface is made up of water? Mostly referring to the oceanic waters of the world, this statistic reminds us how integral that water is to life on earth. However, not all water is surface-based. In fact, there are multiple bodies of water that exist beneath the surface of the earth. From subglacial lakes to cave lakes, hundreds of intriguing bodies of water lie tucked away in the most unexpected spots on earth. Today, in honor of all the lakes we can’t see, we’re covering the smallest and largest underground lakes!

The Largest Subglacial Lake

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Given the expansiveness of Antarctic lakes, it’s no surprise that the largest underground lake in the world is subglacial. As opposed to typical underground lakes, a subglacial lake simply refers to one that is covered by a layer of ice. In the case of Lake Vostok, this layer happens to be 2.5 miles. Because of this lake’s hidden nature, its existence was unknown until the 1990s when a Russian pilot and geographer noticed a unique oblong shape from the air.

Today, the lake is part of Vostok Station, a Russian research hub in central Antarctica. Although scientists disagree about whether the lake existed before or after the East Antarctic Ice Sheet was formed, they do agree on one thing — the lake’s ecosystem is fascinating. With a temperature of -89 degrees Fahrenheit, the presence of life in earth’s coldest temperatures has implications for the possibility of life on other planets.

The Largest Non-Subglacial Underground Lake

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The country of Namibia is famous for a lot of natural wonders — the treacherous skeleton coast, the world’s highest sand dunes, and most of the endangered black rhino population. Beyond these wonders, the country is also home to the largest non-subglacial underground lake. Located in the Otjozondjupa Region in Namibia, Dragon’s Breath Cave was discovered in 1986 and named for the moist air that can be seen from the cave’s entrance, resembling dragon’s breath. At least 16 invertebrate species live in these zero-sunlight conditions, as well as a few other species such as golden catfish, the most isolated fish in the world.

The Smallest Underground Lake

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In a small island in the southwest Pacific, the Moqua Well sits on the island of Nauru. In this tropical location, a limestone plateau formed low cliffs, which later produced caves. Inside, Moqua Well is a 16 foot deep freshwater lake. During World War II, this lake was a primary source of freshwater for the people living on Nauru island. Its integral nature during the war earned its name “well” instead of “lake.” After the war, it was primarily a destination for partiers to drink. However, after an inebriated man fatally fell into the well, the lake is now closed access.

The Smallest and Clearest Underground Lake

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Although it is larger than Moqua Well, Melissani Lake is another one of the world’s smallest underground lakes. It also happens to be a fascinating tourist attraction. Close to the mainland of Greece, it’s located in Melissani Cave on the Greek island of Kefalonia. According to Greek mythology, Melissani was the cave of the nymphs, female deities who are usually personifications of nature. Tourists have remarked on the clarity of the water, which can make boats look as though they’re floating on air. While its length is only 3 miles long, it’s beauty is breathtaking and certainly worth a visit for any travelers to Eastern Europe. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about some of these underground lakes across the world!

Six Interesting Facts about Antarctic Lakes

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On the Lake Homes Realty blog, we have written extensively about lakes on nearly every continent. Many are famous such as Russia’s Lake Baikal, and others, like Alabama’s Lake Wedowee, are hidden gems. However, no lakes hold as much mystery as those in Antarctica. One of the earth’s last unexplored places, these ancient subglacial lakes are the subject of much scientific research. Their cold temperatures, darkness, and depth grab the attention of curious minds everywhere. Although Antarctica’s lakes leave much to the imagination, there are some things that we do know. Check out these six interesting facts about the lakes embedded in the globe’s southernmost continent.

How Many Lakes are in Antarctica?

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It’s no secret that Antarctica is one of the earth’s most extreme climates. Besides being the windiest place on earth, it’s also frigid. On average, the temperature ranges between -14 degrees and -17 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on proximity to the continent’s interior. As such, its lakes are not your typical blue-green bodies of water. Instead, most are subglacial, meaning that they exist beneath an ice sheet.

So far, 379 subglacial lakes have been found in Antarctica. Although they are covered by ice, the lakes are interconnected. Despite their buried nature, these lakes are still detectable from the ice’s surface, allowing scientists to locate and investigate these Antarctic lakes. In recent decades, they have used airborne radio-echo sounding to find lakes beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

Lake Vostok is one of the Earth’s Largest Lakes

A NASA satellite called RADARSAT scanned Antarctica’s surface near the South Pole to uncover the existence of Lake Vostok. This is a radar “image” of the ice over the lake. It’s smooth, which belies the presence of water hidden far below the surface. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio. Additional credit goes to Canadian Space Agency, RADARSAT International Inc. – ThoughtCo.

Of all these subglacial Antarctic Lakes, Lake Vostok is perhaps the most famous. A Russian pilot first noticed its presence in the 1960s. While flying above the continent, he observed a darker, smoother patch of ice near the South Pole. After scientists confirmed the lake’s existence, Lake Vostok became home to an important Russian research site called Vostok Station. It is one of the most remote research stations in the world. In Antarctica, most research is conducted on the coast, and Vostok station is the second most inland station, just behind the U.S.’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. 

Besides its fame in science, Lake Vostok is also impressive for its size. Buried under almost 2.5 miles of frozen water, this massive lake is about the same size as Lake Ontario. It is also one of the world’s deepest lakes at 2,950 feet deep. Given its enormous presence, it’s no wonder that scientists are itching to uncover its mysteries.

Lake Conditions Resemble Jupiter’s Moon

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One reason that Antarctic lakes have drawn scientific attention is because of their implications for life on other planets. Because the subglacial lakes on this continent are dark, cold, and receive little sunlight, their conditions are strikingly similar to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Lake Vostok is the best analog on earth for Europa, which contains a hidden ocean beneath a layer of ice. Recent research indicates that there’s life beneath Lake Vostok’s waters, making the possibility of life on other planets more probable.

Ancient Life Has Been Found in Antarctic Lakes

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Lake Vostok isn’t the only Antarctic lake with signs of life. The subglacial Lake Mercer in Antarctica has been undisturbed for thousands of years beneath a thick layer of ice. That is, until recently. In 2019, researchers funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) were able to melt a small portal that reached the water through the ice. Unexpectedly, they discovered carcasses of small crustaceans whose ancient bodies had been preserved in ice. Upon further investigation, the researchers believe that these animals likely lived in streams and ponds during brief warmer periods up to 120,000 years ago.

Many of Antarctica’s Lakes are Dynamic 

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There are some clear distinctions between Antarctic lakes that exist in the middle of the continent versus along its edges. While most of Antarctica’s central regions have subglacial lakes that are fairly static, its outer regions’ lakes are more dynamic. These regions called ice streams are fast flowing, and they grow and drain over the course of only a few years. According to The Conversation, 130 of these active lakes, including Lake Whillans, have been discovered. There will likely be more to come.

One Subglacial Lake is Blood Red

“Blood Falls” out of Antarctica’s Taylor Glacier. (Credit: Peter Rejcek, U.S. Antarctic Program, National Science Foundation) – Lake Scientist

Most Antarctic lakes are dark, deep, and mysterious. However, one subglacial lake in East Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, called Lake Bonney (named for a British geology professor), flows blood red. In 1911, this rarity was first observed on the Taylor Glacier, where Lake Bonney flows beneath. An expeditioner noticed that the glacier was being stained by a red source of water within it. It wasn’t until 2017 that the source of this color was discovered. As it turns out, the water flowing within the glacier was high in oxidized iron and salt. The resulting rusting effect gave off a red hue. Today, it’s more commonly known as Blood Falls.

We’re sure that there will be more discoveries about these fascinating Antarctic Lakes in the years to come!

Top 5 Deepest Lakes in the World

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Whether it’s the mystery of “what lies beneath” or the sheer natural wonder, deep waters are fascinating. The U.S. is home to many deep lakes, including Crater Lake in Oregon, which is deep enough to fit One World Trade Center with 200 feet to spare. In the Lake Homes market footprint, Lake Superior ranks the deepest at 1,333 feet. Although we love our country’s lakes, today, we appreciate the five deepest lakes across the globe. 

Lake Baikal (5,577 feet)

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This Russian UNESCO World Heritage site could fit the world’s two tallest buildings (Burj Khalifa and the Makkah Royal Clock Tower) plus the Washington Monument. It also contains almost 20% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater reserve. Not only is Lake Baikal the world’s deepest lake– it’s also the oldest. It was formed 25 million years ago through the planet’s diverging crust. Baikal’s age and isolation have resulted in unique freshwater fauna. More than 1,500 animal species reside in Lake Baikal, 80% of which are endemic (i.e., they don’t live anywhere else in the world). One of these creatures is the Nerpa seal, the world’s only freshwater seal. As photographer James Napoli documented for National Geographic, they like to lounge on the lake’s rocks. If you visit Baikal in winter, be sure to dress appropriately, as it can reach minus 40 degrees. It is Siberia, after all! 

Lake Tanganyika (4,700 feet)

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Tanganyika is a massive lake in Africa that borders four countries: Tanzania, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zambia. Its depth results from proximity to The Great Rift Valley, a pronounced fissure in the earth’s crust. Besides being the second deepest lake, it’s also the world’s longest freshwater lake. Its remarkably clear waters (visible of up to 65 feet) are 350 species of tropical fish. Most of these fish are cichlids, and 90% of them are endemic. Similar to Lake Baikal, Lake Tanganyika’s old age and seclusion helped these fish flourish. It’s no wonder Tanganyika is renowned for aquarium exports and angling. If you visit, be sure to skip the swimming — this deep lake is home to crocodiles! 

Caspian Sea (3,360 feet)

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Despite its name, the Caspian Sea is both a sea and lake. However, the distinction is more than semantics. If it’s a sea, the United Nations splits the sea’s ownership based on the neighboring countries’ shoreline length. However, if it’s a lake, countries can evenly divide ownership. As such, its surrounding nations (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) quarrel over its ownership. Kazakhstan, with the longest coastline, would prefer a “sea” classification. But Iran with a shorter border, will vote for “lake.” It’s unsurprising why this body of water is coveted — it’s famous for its oil and natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy and Information Administration, the Caspian Sea produces 2.6 million barrels of crude oil per day. Besides its economic value, bathing in these oils can heal up to 70 ailments, according to one doctor at a spa in Azerbaijan. 

Lake Vostok (2,950 feet)

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Vostok, near the South Pole, is one of the earth’s most intense climates. It’s home to the lowest recorded temperature on the earth’s surface at minus 89.2 degrees. However, the lake is even colder below the surface. For at least 15 million years, Lake Vostok has been covered by 1.2 miles of thick ice. Its presence was unknown until the 1960s when a Russian pilot noticed its outline from the sky. In the 1990s, researchers confirmed this subglacial lake’s existence. Today, only scientists can visit. When first studying the lake, Russian researchers at Vostok Station were intrigued by its lack of access to sunlight and nutrients. They thought a climate akin to Jupiter’s moons must be inhospitable to life. However, recent research indicates that there is life beneath its waters. This discovery points to the possibility of life on other planets. Check out NASA’s video from scientist Dr. David Morrison describing Lake Vostok’s space-related implications.

Lake O’ Higgins/ San Martín (2,742 feet)

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Divided between Chili and Argentina, Lake O’ Higgins/ San Martín is the deepest lake in the Americas and 5th deepest in the world. Its depth is caused by the constant glacial movement that erodes the lake’s floor. Its irregular shape distinguishes it with eight distinct arms and the water’s milky blue color is caused by rock flour. The lake is also known for its steep surrounding mountains that were not inhabited until the early 1900s. If you’re confused by the lake’s double name, the answer depends on your country. If you’re in Chili, it’s Lago O’Higgins and San Martín in Argentina. Both sides are named for influential leaders, Argentinian Jose de San Martín and Chilean Bernardo O’Higgins, who fought for Chile’s independence in the early 1800s. 

For more lake-related trivia, check out American Lakes With the Highest Elevation and 5 of the World’s Largest Man-Made Lakes.

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