Monday, April 15, 2013

Salar de Uyuni

During the rainy season, Salar de Uyuni
becomes the world's largest mirror.

Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat at 10,600 square kilometers—about 100 times larger than the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. It is located in the Andes in southwest Bolivia at an elevation of 3,656 meters, making it the highest salt flats in the world. The salt flat was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which is extraordinarily flat. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium, of which it contains 50-70% of the world's reserves. 
Salar de Uyuni traditional salt harvest: salt is
scraped into small mounds to evaporate the water
for easier transportation.
   The salt flat is the remains of an ancient lake from about 40,000 years ago. Because it is surrounded by mountains, there is no drainage outlet and the salt collects on the lake bed as the water evaporates. The salt is scraped away from the surface by locals and piled up into mounds. This helps the water evaporate more quickly so the salt can be transported away. Salar de Uyuni contains about 10 billion tons of salt, and each year 25,000 tons are harvested by a cooperative of miners that share in the profits.
   The large area, clear skies and the exceptional flatness of the surface make Salar de Uyuni an ideal place to use to calibrate satellite altimeters. It is the major transportation route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingos. Salar de Uyuni is a climate transition zone, for towering clouds that form in the eastern part of the salt flat during the summer cannot penetrate beyond its drier western edges, near the Chilean border and the Atacama Desert.
   During the rainy season the water creates the world's largest mirror which must be seen to be believed. You can see the sky and clouds under your feet and feel like you're walking on them. Even though it is quite remote, many photographers and tourists take amazing photos at Salar de Uyuni.
   There is currently a political battle going on over the lithium resource that Salar de Uyuni hold. The Bolivian government is not willing to simply export the raw materials needed for the ubiquitous lithium-ion batteries used for electric vehicles, iPhones and other consumer electronics—they want to manufacture locally as well as protect the salt flats from damage. Bolivia is aiming to become the Saudi Arabia of lithium production and they are being courted by conglomerates such as Mitsubishi and Sumitomo who believe that the next wave of automobile batteries must come from Salar de Uyuni. Meanwhile, due to political uncertainty and poor relations with the Bolivian government, the U.S. is sitting on the sidelines.

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