Caribbean Pitch Lake is so sticky you can walk across it

Caribbean Pitch Lake is so sticky you can walk across it

Caribbean Pitch Lake is so sticky you can walk across it

Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean is home to one of the strangest lakes in the world. Not only is Pitch Lake teeming with bizarre microbial life, but its “waters” are also of such an odd consistency that you can walk across it.

Located near La Brea on the southwestern tip of Trinidad, Pitch Lake is approximately 40 hectares (100 acres) and 76 meters (250 feet) deep. It is teeming with some 10 million tons of asphalt, aka pitch, making it the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world.

It is located above the intersection of two of Earth’s geological fault lines. Asphalt is thought to have emerged many thousands of years ago when the underlying fault lines got deep enough to tap into oil and gas reservoirs, causing this form of oil to rise to the surface very viscous.

The abundance of sticky asphalt gives the lake a very special quality. It basically acts like a huge field of muddy asphalt strewn with puddles of water. In some places the lake is solid enough to stand on and walk around without too much trouble. In other patches, people who stumble will slowly sink like a spoon dropping into heavy cream.

A man's hand stirring liquid asphalt with a wooden stick at Pitch Lake, the world's largest natural bitumen deposit.  La Brea, Trinidad Island, Trinidad and Tobago.

Take a dip at Pitch Lake. Image credit: maloff/Shutterstock.com

Due to the flammable qualities of petroleum, smoking is not recommended. It is said that if you drop a match into any of the pools of water, a violent explosion of flames will occur.

Despite the unique qualities of this lake (if you can call it that), it has not been studied by many scientific studies. However, researchers have looked into the microbial life of the lake and, unsurprisingly, it has a few surprises in store.

A 2011 study concluded that “the microbial diversity of Pitch Lake was found to be unique compared to microbial communities analyzed in other hydrocarbon-rich environments.” As well as discovering a bunch of never-before-seen species, the microbial communities that live here have been shown to be diverse, made up of “deeply branching lineages” of coexisting bacteria and archaea.

The lake is briefly mentioned in accounts of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to the Caribbean and South America in 1595. Aware of the quality of the asphalt, he used it as a sealant on his leaking ships. He is said to have described the asphalt as “the most excellent … It does not melt with the sun like pitch from Norway”.

Group of tourists walking at Pitch Lake, the world's largest natural asphalt deposit, La Brea, Trinidad and Tobago.

Walk on water? Pitch Lake is a major tourist magnet. Image credit: Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock.com

As the influence of colonialism grew in the Caribbean, European powers exploited this precious natural resource and shipped the high-quality asphalt around the world. By the 19th and 20th centuries, commercial asphalt harvesting by the British was well advanced and hundreds of thousands of tons were exported around the world.

While English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh is often credited in history books with discovering the lake, it had a long history before European colonialism, as evidenced by archaeological evidence at the site dating back to 500 BCE. . According to legends from local indigenous communities, the lake was created by the Great Spirit as punishment for the killing of hummingbirds, which were sacred to them.

Today, the lake is still used to extract asphalt, but operations are now controlled by the state-owned Lake Asphalt of Trinidad and Tobago. The eerie sight is also a major magnet for tourists who can join locals in embarking on expeditions across the semi-solid lake. At their own risk, of course.

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