A very special and unique place.

Tufa Thoughts — Scenic Limestone Towers
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but the real thing is always worth a thousand pictures.

The subject is tufa. Pronounced "too-faw." Not "tuffa" — that's actually a different kind of mineral. Nor is it "tofu" — that's a food made from soybean curd.

As a ranger at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, tufa is my main topic — the primary justification for the presence of State Park Rangers around the shores of Mono Lake. So it might seem strange that in the 18 months since I began writing these articles for Mammoth Times I have never written just about tufa.

The name has come up, of course. There was the article about the lake's strange water chemistry, where I couldn't help but mention the chemical reaction between alkaline lake water and freshwater springs which produce tufa towers. Another article mentioned the importance of the rocks to alkali flies when they go underwater to lay their eggs on them. The flies even help create more tufa by accumulating calcium carbonate in glands during their larvae stage and then depositing it on the submerged towers when they pupate and leave the water as adults.

If I've avoided directly writing on the subject of the towers themselves, it's because words strain to do them justice.

Photographers try to capture their beauty and mystery. In fact, every summer sunrise and sunset brings a mini-rush-hour of photographers to the South Tufa area at Mono Lake. But nothing can match being there yourself. You have to see them to believe them.

Plenty of words have been written, of course. The lake's towers have been called "cemented cauliflower", "inferior mortar, dried hard", "the skeletons of a dying lake", and "petrified springs". The walk through South Tufa provokes comparisons to a lunar landscape. People struggle to find words to capture the experience and the images.

You need to go see for yourself.

What? You're still sitting there reading this magazine? Well, despite the difficulty of the task, I'll just have to try myself. Maybe a couple more paragraphs will convince you to get up and go.

Think of stalagmites — the columns and spires which grow up from the floors of caves, below ceiling drips. Now, subtract the cave.

No, that doesn't quite do the job, does it? Cave formations and tufa do have a common chemistry — they are calcium carbonate. But if you ask a geologist to define "tufa", he should tell you that it is calcium carbonate formed from the mixing of waters. Two water sources are necessary.

Mono Lake's alkaline water provides the carbonates which go into the mix. Think of it as dissolved baking soda. And underground freshwater, emerging as springs beneath the lake, provides the calcium source. Mix them together under the right conditions and, voila! tufa.

Let the reaction continue for awhile, with the spring flowing constantly up through the heavier, more dense, saltwater. As it rises through and around the growing mass, more and more solid material will be deposited. Ultimately, the towers can grow upward until they reach the surface of the lake.

Got that? You can now dazzle your friends with these two fundamental facts: Wherever you find a tufa formation, 1) Mono Lake had to have covered that area at some time, and 2) a source of freshwater also had to have been there.

Today we walk among many of the towers stranded on dry land. That "petrified springs" image evokes a feeling for the change that has occurred. Few of the tufas stranded on land have springs still gushing through or around them. As Mono Lake dropped (a result of the diversions of streams which are needed to replace evaporation from the lake), the springs tended to follow the declining shoreline.

Snorkel or scuba dive among the tufas still underwater and you will experience something very different. Most of the underwater towers still appear to have tendrils of freshwater rising from their peaks. New calcium carbonate crystals can sometimes be seen forming. The towers are changing and alive — alive with algae and feasting fly larvae and adult flies walking around in their silver bubbles of air.

The interaction between water and tufa shows up even on land. Visitors to the "groves" don't spend much of their time amidst the dry, upland formations. Most of you walk the shoreline itself, where the towers meet the lake and where the best views can be had of towers jutting from the water offshore (like emerging "skeletons"?), doubled in number and scale by their mirror-image reflections on the lake surface.

It is true that the decline in the lake has actually allowed us to walk among the tufa towers. It is also true that experiencing the tufas, without the lake, is not the same. If you want to see tufa formations in a dry lake, you can visit "the pinnacles" in the dry bed of Searles Lake, near Ridgecrest. But that spot doesn't attract even close to the 200,000 visitors that come to Mono Lake each year.

Mono Lake's tufa towers are only one part of the experience of a visit here. Tufa formations are the primary focus of the State Reserve. But they do not stand alone. They are just part of an unusual mix of scenery, setting and life at Mono Lake. The total package is what impresses most; something more than the sum of its individual parts.

It took me this long to finally write about tufa because they are not easy to capture in words. But, most of all, because they are only part of the whole.

Come and see for yourself. Bring your camera. You will find yourself looking far across the lake, at the vista of the Sierra Crest to the west and volcanic formations forming the other three walls of the basin. Soon your focus will shift. Textures and color and light will vary and change. A flock of birds will suddenly come into the picture. And as your attention moves in closer and closer, you will become aware that the water near your feet teems with life — brine shrimp and alkali flies, the unique animals adapted to this unique chemical soup.

Bent over now, peering into the water, you may suddenly spot a freshwater spring, not mixing with the salty lake water, but pushing up through in its quest to float atop the brine. And there, around the base of the spring, you may see the yellowish crystals of calcium carbonate being added to the rocky bottom.

The water of Mono Lake is at the center of it all. Salty, soapy, and strange. It controls what can — and cannot — live here. It is at the center of human controversy over this lake. And it creates the conditions for tufa towers to form.

There's a joke that says that the name "tufa" is used here because people used to sell these decorative towers "tu-fa the price of one". No such sale could ever be held for Mono Lake as a whole. In its beauty, setting, and life, Mono Lake is one of a kind. You need to go see for yourself.

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Mono Lake Committee
     
The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center
     
Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve
 
 
 
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