Endorheic basin

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Endorheic basin showing waterflow input into Uureg Lake, Mongolia Uureg Nuur.jpg
Endorheic basin showing waterflow input into Üüreg Lake, Mongolia
NASA photo of the endorheic Tarim Basin, China Wfm tarim basin.jpg
NASA photo of the endorheic Tarim Basin, China

An endorheic basin ( /ˌɛndˈr.ɪk/ ; also spelled endoreic basin or endorreic basin) is a drainage basin that normally retains water and allows no outflow to other external bodies of water, such as rivers or oceans, where drainage converges instead into lakes or swamps, permanent or seasonal, that equilibrate through evaporation. They are also called closed or terminal basins, internal drainage systems, or simply basins. Endorheic regions contrast with exorheic regions, where surface waters eventually drain into the ocean. [1] Endorheic water bodies include some of the largest lakes in the world, such as the Caspian Sea, the world's largest inland body of water. [2]


Basins with subsurface outflows which eventually lead to the ocean are generally not considered endorheic; [3] [4] [5] they are cryptorheic. [6]

Endorheic basins constitute local base levels, defining a limit of the erosion and deposition processes of nearby areas. [7]


The term was borrowed from French endor(rh)éisme, coined from the combining form endo- (from Ancient Greek : ἔνδονéndon 'within') and ῥεῖνrheîn 'to flow'. [8]

Endorheic lakes

Endorheic lakes (also called terminal lakes [9] ) are bodies of water that do not flow into the sea. Most of the water that falls on Earth finds its way to the oceans through a network of rivers, lakes and wetlands. However, there is a class of water bodies located in closed or endorheic watersheds where the topography prevents their drainage to the oceans. [10] [11] These endorheic watersheds (containing water in rivers or lakes that form a balance of surface inflows, evaporation and seepage) are often called sinks. [12]

Endorheic lakes are typically located in the interior of a landmass, far from an ocean and in areas of relatively low rainfall. Their watersheds are often confined by natural geologic land formations such as a mountain range, cutting off water egress to the ocean. The inland water flows into dry watersheds where the water evaporates, leaving a high concentration of minerals and other inflow erosion products. Over time this input of erosion products can cause the endorheic lake to become relatively saline (a "salt lake"). Since the main outflow pathways of these lakes are chiefly through evaporation and seepage, endorheic lakes are usually more sensitive to environmental pollutant inputs than water bodies that have access to oceans, as pollution can be trapped in them and accumulate over time. [2]


The Okavango Delta (centre) of southern Africa, where the Okavango River spills out into the empty trough of the Kalahari Desert. The area was a lake fed by the river during the Ice Ages (national borders are superimposed) DeltaOkawango.jpg
The Okavango Delta (centre) of southern Africa, where the Okavango River spills out into the empty trough of the Kalahari Desert. The area was a lake fed by the river during the Ice Ages (national borders are superimposed)

Endorheic regions can occur in any climate but are most commonly found in desert locations. [13] This reflects the balance between tectonic subsidence and rates of evaporation and sedimentation. Where the basin floor is dropping more rapidly than water and sediments can accumulate, any lake in the basin will remain below the sill level (the level at which water can find a path out of the basin). Low rainfall or rapid evaporation in the watershed favor this case. In areas where rainfall is higher, riparian erosion will generally carve drainage channels (particularly in times of flood), or cause the water level in the terminal lake to rise until it finds an outlet, breaking the enclosed endorheic hydrological system's geographical barrier and opening it to the surrounding terrain. [14] [15] The Black Sea was likely such a lake, having once been an independent hydrological system before the Mediterranean Sea broke through the terrain separating the two. [16] Lake Bonneville was another such lake, overflowing its basin in the Bonneville flood. [17] The Malheur/Harney lake system in Oregon is normally cut off from drainage to the ocean, but has an outflow channel to the Malheur River. This is presently dry, but may have flowed as recently as 1000 years ago. [18]

Examples of relatively humid regions in endorheic basins often exist at high elevation. These regions tend to be marshy and are subject to substantial flooding in wet years. The area containing Mexico City is one such case, with annual precipitation of 850 mm (33 in) and characterized by waterlogged soils that require draining. [19]

Endorheic regions tend to be far inland with their boundaries defined by mountains or other geological features that block their access to oceans. Since the inflowing water can evacuate only through seepage or evaporation, dried minerals or other products collect in the basin, eventually making the water saline and also making the basin vulnerable to pollution. [2] Continents vary in their concentration of endorheic regions due to conditions of geography and climate. Australia has the highest percentage of endorheic regions at 21 percent while North America has the least at five percent. [20] Approximately 18 percent of the earth's land drains to endorheic lakes or seas, the largest of these land areas being the interior of Asia.

In deserts, water inflow is low and loss to solar evaporation high, drastically reducing the formation of complete drainage systems. In the extreme case, where there is no discernible drainage system, the basin is described as arheic. [13] Closed water flow areas often lead to the concentration of salts and other minerals in the basin. Minerals leached from the surrounding rocks are deposited in the basin, and left behind when the water evaporates. Thus endorheic basins often contain extensive salt pans (also called salt flats, salt lakes, alkali flats, dry lake beds or playas). These areas tend to be large, flat hardened surfaces and are sometimes used for aviation runways or land speed record attempts, because of their extensive areas of perfectly level terrain.

Both permanent and seasonal endorheic lakes can form in endorheic basins. Some endorheic basins are essentially stable because climate change has reduced precipitation to the degree that a lake no longer forms. Even most permanent endorheic lakes change size and shape dramatically over time, often becoming much smaller or breaking into several smaller parts during the dry season. As humans have expanded into previously uninhabitable desert areas, the river systems that feed many endorheic lakes have been altered by the construction of dams and aqueducts. As a result, many endorheic lakes in developed or developing countries have contracted dramatically, resulting in increased salinity, higher concentrations of pollutants, and the disruption of ecosystems.

Even within exorheic basins, there can be "non-contributing", low-lying areas that trap runoff and prevent it from contributing to flows downstream during years of average or below-average runoff. In flat river basins, non-contributing areas can be a large fraction of the river basin, e.g. Lake Winnipeg's basin. [21] A lake may be endorheic during dry years and can overflow its basin during wet years, e.g., the former Tulare Lake.

Because the Earth's climate has recently been through a warming and drying phase with the end of the Ice Ages, many endorheic areas such as Death Valley that are now dry deserts were large lakes relatively recently. During the last ice age, the Sahara may have contained lakes larger than any now existing. [22]

Climate change coupled with the mismanagement of water in these endorheic regions has led to devastating losses in ecosystem services and toxic surges of pollutants. [23] The desiccation of saline lakes produces fine dust particles that impair agriculture productivity and harm human health. [24] [25] Anthropogenic activity has also caused a redistribution of water from these hydrologically landlocked basins such that endorheic water loss has contributed to sea level rise, and it is estimated that most of the terrestrial water lost ends up in the ocean. [26] In regions such as Central Asia, where they depend on endorheic basins and other surface water sources to satisfy their water needs, human activity greatly impacts the availability of that water. [27]

Notable endorheic basins and lakes

Major endorheic basins of the world. Basins are shown in dark grey; major endorheic lakes are shown in black. Coloured regions represent the major drainage patterns of the continents to the oceans (non-endorheic). Continental divides are indicated by dark lines. Ocean drainage.png
Major endorheic basins of the world. Basins are shown in dark grey; major endorheic lakes are shown in black. Coloured regions represent the major drainage patterns of the continents to the oceans (non-endorheic). Continental divides are indicated by dark lines.


Large endorheic regions in Africa are located in the Sahara Desert, the Sahel, the Kalahari Desert, and the East African Rift:


There are endorheic lakes in Antarctica in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Victoria Land, the largest ice-free area in Antarctica.


The Caspian Sea, a large inland basin Caspian Sea from orbit.jpg
The Caspian Sea, a large inland basin
Lake Van, Turkey STS079-781-53.jpg
Lake Van, Turkey

Much of Western and Central Asia is a giant endorheic region made up of a number of contiguous closed basins. The region contains several basins and terminal lakes, including:

Other endorheic lakes and basins in Asia include:


A false-colour satellite photo of Australia's Lake Eyre
Image credit: NASA's Earth Observatory NEO lake eyre big.jpg
A false-colour satellite photo of Australia's Lake Eyre
Image credit: NASA's Earth Observatory

Australia, being very dry and having exceedingly low runoff ratios due to its ancient soils, has many endorheic drainages. The most important are:


The Lasithi Plateau in Crete Kreta-Lassithi-Hochebene.jpg
The Lasithi Plateau in Crete

Though a large portion of Europe drains to the endorheic Caspian Sea, Europe's wet climate means it contains relatively few terminal lakes itself: any such basin is likely to continue to fill until it reaches an overflow level connecting it with an outlet or erodes the barrier blocking its exit.

There are some seemingly endorheic lakes, but in fact they are cryptorheic, being drained either through manmade canals, via karstic phenomena, or other subsurface seepage.

A few minor true endorheic lakes exist in Spain (e.g. Laguna de Gallocanta, Estany de Banyoles), Italy, Cyprus (Larnaca and Akrotiri salt lakes) and Greece.

MODIS image from November 4, 2001 showing Lake Titicaca, the Salar de Uyuni, and the Salar de Coipasa. These are all parts of the Altiplano Lake Titicaca Modis Sensor Nov 4 2001.jpg
MODIS image from November 4, 2001 showing Lake Titicaca, the Salar de Uyuni, and the Salar de Coipasa. These are all parts of the Altiplano

North America

The dry lake in the Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park BadwaterBasin.JPG
The dry lake in the Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park
Great Salt Lake, Satellite photo (2003) after five years of drought Great Salt Lake ISS 2003.jpg
Great Salt Lake, Satellite photo (2003) after five years of drought

Many small lakes and ponds in North Dakota and the Northern Great Plains are endorheic; some of them have salt encrustations along their shores.

South America


Some of Earth's ancient endorheic systems and lakes include:

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of Africa</span> Geographical features of Africa

Africa is a continent comprising 63 political territories, representing the largest of the great southward projections from the main mass of Earth's surface. Within its regular outline, it comprises an area of 30,368,609 km2 (11,725,385 sq mi), excluding adjacent islands. Its highest mountain is Mount Kilimanjaro; its largest lake is Lake Victoria.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Great Salt Lake</span> Salt lake in Utah, United States

The Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth-largest terminal lake in the world. It lies in the northern part of the U.S. state of Utah and has a substantial impact upon the local climate, particularly through lake-effect snow. It is a remnant of Lake Bonneville, a prehistoric body of water that covered much of western Utah.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Drainage basin</span> Area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet

A drainage basin is an area of land where all flowing surface water converges to a single point, such as a river mouth, or flows into another body of water, such as a lake or ocean. A basin is separated from adjacent basins by a perimeter, the drainage divide, made up of a succession of elevated features, such as ridges and hills. A basin may consist of smaller basins that merge at river confluences, forming a hierarchical pattern.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Great Basin</span> Large depression in western North America

The Great Basin is the largest area of contiguous endorheic watersheds, those with no outlets, in North America. It spans nearly all of Nevada, much of Utah, and portions of California, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, and Baja California. It is noted for both its arid climate and the basin and range topography that varies from the North American low point at Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the highest point of the contiguous United States, less than 100 miles (160 km) away at the summit of Mount Whitney. The region spans several physiographic divisions, biomes, ecoregions, and deserts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Great Basin Desert</span> Desert in the western United States

The Great Basin Desert is part of the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Range. The desert is a geographical region that largely overlaps the Great Basin shrub steppe defined by the World Wildlife Fund, and the Central Basin and Range ecoregion defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and United States Geological Survey. It is a temperate desert with hot, dry summers and snowy winters. The desert spans large portions of Nevada and Utah, and extends into eastern California. The desert is one of the four biologically defined deserts in North America, in addition to the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan Deserts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Salt pan (geology)</span> Flat expanse of ground covered with salt and other minerals

Natural salt pans or salt flats are flat expanses of ground covered with salt and other minerals, usually shining white under the sun. They are found in deserts and are natural formations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dry lake</span> Basin or depression that formerly contained a standing surface water body

A dry lake bed, also known as a playa, is a basin or depression that formerly contained a standing surface water body, which disappears when evaporation processes exceed recharge. If the floor of a dry lake is covered by deposits of alkaline compounds, it is known as an alkali flat. If covered with salt, it is known as a salt flat.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pluvial lake</span> Landlocked basin (endorheic basin)

A pluvial lake is a body of water that accumulated in a basin because of a greater moisture availability resulting from changes in temperature and/or precipitation. These intervals of greater moisture availability are not always contemporaneous with glacial periods. Pluvial lakes are typically closed lakes that occupied endorheic basins. Pluvial lakes that have since evaporated and dried out may also be referred to as paleolakes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Walker River</span> River in Nevada, United States

The Walker River is a river in west-central Nevada in the United States, approximately 62 miles (100 km) long. Fed principally by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada of California, it drains an arid portion of the Great Basin southeast of Reno and flows into the endorheic basin of Walker Lake. The river is an important source of water for irrigation in its course through Nevada; water diversions have reduced its flow such that the level of Walker Lake has fallen 160 feet (49 m) between 1882 and 2010. The river was named for explorer Joseph Reddeford Walker, a mountain man and experienced scout who is known for establishing a segment of the California Trail.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lake Poopó</span> Saline lake in Bolivia

Lake Poopó was a large saline lake in a shallow depression in the Altiplano Mountains in Oruro Department, Bolivia, at an altitude of approximately 3,700 m (12,100 ft). Because the lake was long and wide, it made up the eastern half of the department, known as a mining region in southwest Bolivia. The permanent part of the lake body covered approximately 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi) and it was the second-largest lake in the country. The lake received most of its water from the Desaguadero River, which flows from Lake Titicaca at the north end of the Altiplano. Since the lake lacked any major outlet and had a mean depth of less than 3 m (10 ft), the surface area differed greatly seasonally.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Salt lake</span> Landlocked body of water which has a high concentration of salts

A salt lake or saline lake is a landlocked body of water that has a concentration of salts and other dissolved minerals significantly higher than most lakes. In some cases, salt lakes have a higher concentration of salt than sea water; such lakes can also be termed hypersaline lakes, and may also be pink lakes on account of their colour. An alkalic salt lake that has a high content of carbonate is sometimes termed a soda lake.

Open and closed lakes refer to the major subdivisions of lakes – bodies of water surrounded by land. Exorheic, or open lakes drain into a river, or other body of water that ultimately drains into the ocean. Endorheic basins fall into the category of endorheic or closed lakes, wherein waters do not drain into the ocean, but are reduced by evaporation, and/or drain into the ground.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sistan Basin</span> Inland endorheic basin

The Sistan Basin is an inland endorheic basin encompassing large parts of southwestern Afghanistan and minor parts of southeastern Iran, one of the driest regions in the world and an area subjected to prolonged droughts. Its watershed is a system of rivers flowing from the highlands of Afghanistan into freshwater lakes and marshes and then to its ultimate destination: Afghanistan's saline Godzareh depression, part of the extensive Sistan terminal basin. The Helmand River drains the basin's largest watershed, fed mainly by snowmelt from the mountains of Hindu Kush, but other rivers contribute also.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Continental divide</span> Drainage divide on a continent

A continental divide is a drainage divide on a continent such that the drainage basin on one side of the divide feeds into one ocean or sea, and the basin on the other side either feeds into a different ocean or sea, or else is endorheic, not connected to the open sea. Every continent on earth except Antarctica has at least one continental drainage divide; islands, even small ones like Killiniq Island on the Labrador Sea in Canada, may also host part of a continental divide or have their own island-spanning divide. The endpoints of a continental divide may be coastlines of gulfs, seas or oceans, the boundary of an endorheic basin, or another continental divide. One case, the Great Basin Divide, is a closed loop around an endoreic basin. The endpoints where a continental divide meets the coast are not always definite since the exact border between adjacent bodies of water is usually not clearly defined. The International Hydrographic Organization's publication Limits of Oceans and Seas defines exact boundaries of oceans, but it is not universally recognized. Where a continental divide meets an endorheic basin, such as the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming, the continental divide splits and encircles the basin. Where two divides intersect, they form a triple divide, or a tripoint, a junction where three watersheds meet.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lake</span> Large body of relatively still water

A lake is a naturally occurring, relatively large body of water localized in a basin surrounded by dry land. A lake generally has a slower-moving flow than the inflow or outflow stream(s) that serve to feed or drain it. Lakes lie completely on land and are separate from the ocean, although, like the much larger oceans, they form part of the Earth's water cycle by serving as large standing pools of storage water. Most lakes are freshwater and account for almost all the world's surface freshwater, but some are salt lakes with salinities even higher than that of seawater.

Rush Lake is a shallow saline lake in Tooele County in the U.S. state of Utah. It is a remnant of Lake Bonneville, an ancient postglacial inland sea that covered much of the western United States during the Ice Ages. The lake is a natural impoundment of a stream that drains into the Great Salt Lake. Rush Lake varies in size, evaporating at about 2 feet (0.61 m) per year, although occasional floods refill the lake. The average surface elevation is 4,951 feet (1,509 m).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Endorheic lake</span> Depression within an endorheic basin where water collects with no visible outlet

An endorheic lake is a collection of water within an endorheic basin, or sink, with no evident outlet. Endorheic lakes are generally saline as a result of being unable to get rid of solutes left in the lake by evaporation. These lakes can be used as indicators of anthropogenic change, such as irrigation or climate change, in the areas surrounding them. Lakes with subsurface drainage are considered cryptorheic.

The Great Basin Divide in the western United States is the ridgeline that separates the Great Basin from the Pacific Ocean watershed, which completely surrounds it.


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