I was poking around the CIA World Factbook (doesn’t everyone?) and came across an interesting page that listed "miscellaneous geographic information of significance not included elsewhere." That’s wonderful, I thought, a page of international odds-and-ends that didn’t fit within the book’s prescribed format. I live for moments like that.
It listed little tidbits on just about every nation around the globe. My mind wandered over to the entry for Djibouti:
strategic location near world’s busiest shipping lanes and close to Arabian oilfields; terminus of rail traffic into Ethiopia; mostly wasteland; Lac Assal (Lake Assal) is the lowest point in Africa and the saltiest lake in the world
That’s a lot of miscellany for such a tiny nation, a place slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts and populated by fewer than a million residents. I was fascinated by the thought of Lac Assal although seeing a nation described as "mostly wasteland" amused me as well. I’m sure the residents wouldn’t endorse that characterization.
Sources agree that Lac Assal is the lowest point of elevation in Africa. However, there’s a variation in its recorded altitude which seems to center at about -155 metres (-509 feet) give or take a few metres. Assal is a crater lake on the end of a rift valley formed along a geologic fault. The plates split apart, a volcano created a crater, and a depression formed well below sea level. Any water that finds its way into the valley and the crater has no way to escape. Lac Assal doesn’t have an outlet to the sea.
The salinity has become intense due to minerals eroding from the surrounding terrain that washes down into the lake and remains there, while the water evaporates. This is typical of endorheic basins — the same condition exists in Utah’s Great Salt Lake (my visit). The CIA referred to Lac Assal as the "saltiest lake in the world" and that may be true, although Don Juan Pond in Antarctica is allegedly saltier. Lake? Pond? Whatever. Lac Assal is really salty and it’s a source of industry for the area. Huge salt flats are clearly visible on the northwest side of the satellite image.
That’s all interesting, however I’m most fascinated by its proximity to the sea. Maybe 10 kilometres separates Lac Assal from Ghoubbet El Kharab (or Lake or Bay of Ghoubet). Take a close look at the eastern edge of Ghoubbet El Kharab. It is connected to the Gulf of Tadjoura by a narrow passageway, which in turn is connected to the Gulf of Aden. Thus, the surface of Ghoubbet El Kharab would be at sea level. The lowest point in Africa is a mere ten klicks away! One narrow ridge of stone is all that separates Africa’s lowpoint from being inundated by the sea.
In fact, Ghoubbet El Kharab is Lac Assal’s main source of water. Certainly whatever rain falls within the basin, as lacking as that may be, would flow into the lake. Much more water seeps through fissures in the stone wall between Ghoubbet El Kharab and Lac Assal. The stone separating the two features acts as a dam with a crack in it.
Tourists visit Lac Assal generally in winter. The temperature can hit 50° Celsius (122° Fahrenheit) in the summer, and become truly life threatening. There are other hazards. Djibouti was involved in a civil war between 1991 and 1994 and matériel still remains scattered throughout the countryside. The United States Embassy issued a security message in 2012 after a boy was injured by a land mine nearby (map). So if you go — and I hope someday some of you do — time it right and stick to the roads. And take lots of photos.
The query simply said, "Most Landlocked State." It seemed innocent enough as I pondered it. I believed it would have a simple solution. However, the more I considered it the more I figured the answer could vary based upon one’s definition of landlocked. I wish I could ask the anonymous searcher what he (or she) meant but that’s not possible. I’ll throw out a few alternatives and let the Intertubes decide.
At a fundamental level, does he mean "state" as in an independent nation or as part of a larger entity such as one of the fifty United States? If it’s nation then I’d propose Uzbekistan and Liechtenstein. They are both Doubly Landlocked, meaning they are landlocked nations completely surrounded by other landlocked nations. Thus, Uzbekistan and Liechtenstein are probably as good a choice as any.
However I’m going to examine the other alternative in a bit more detail by bringing the discussion to the United States. I’m also considering the possibility that states bordering the Great Lakes aren’t truly landlocked: massive ships can navigate a full 2,300 miles (3,700 km) from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth, Minnesota. Some of the 12MC audience may disagree with that premise and that’s fine. I’m going to run with it.
Given that assumption, there are two U.S. states that are double landlocked: Kansas and Nebraska. Perhaps those are the most landlocked states?
I defined a concept I termed "borderlocking" in an article I posted nearly two years ago: Layers of Borderlocking. It was a similar exercise although I focused my efforts at one level below the states, down at the county level. This created a rather colorful map with seventeen layers of borderlocking. Feel free to go back to the original article if you’d like a better description of what you’re seeing below.
The full seventeen layers happens in a handful of counties in Kansas and in a single county in Nebraska. Interesting. That method also seems to favor Kansas and Nebraska as the most landlocked states, with a slight nod to Kansas.
One might also consider the point of land within the United States that’s the farthest away from a coastline. That pole of inaccessibility, not only for the USA but for the entirety of North America, falls in southwest South Dakota. One would have to travel 1,030 miles (1,650 km) to reach the nearest coastline from that point.
Now that seems truly landlocked! So is the answer South Dakota?
I considered one other possibility. I already allowed an exception for Great Lake states because they’re water accessible. What if I took that concept one step further and defined landlocked as only those places where water could not escape to an ocean (eventually)? Which state has the most acreage within endorheic watersheds?
The Great Basin would be an obvious choice to investigate further. It covers most of Nevada and much of Utah, plus portions of several other states although to considerably lesser degrees. Water falls into the Basin but it doesn’t flow outward, leading to amazing oddities such as the Bonneville Salt Flats that I was lucky enough to visit last summer.
I’d propose Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Nevada as feasible options for the most landlocked state, but I still don’t feel completely comfortable with any of those answers. Are there other ways we can consider this phenomenon and help out our anonymous reader?
"Ya gotta be jokin’ – No we’re not!" proclaims the Lake Eyre Yacht Club, the self-determined Worlds most exclusive Yacht Club, where only people who have actually skippered their own vessel on the lake surface can become full members. This is an extremely daunting task under the best of conditions that occur during brief windows maybe once every couple of years. The rest of the time it’s impossible.
Lake Eyre represents the lowest point of elevation in Australia at 15 metres (49 feet) below sea level. The larger Eyre Basin covers nearly one-sixth of the continent. It’s endorheic so water entering the basin does not have an outlet to the sea. Rather, it flows away from the sea and towards the Australian interior for this very large portion of the continent. The minuscule portion of drainage that doesn’t soak into the soil or evaporate into the harsh desert atmosphere will find its way eventually to Lake Eyre in South Australia.
SOURCE: Lake Eyre Basin, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Australian Government
Lake Eyre is often nearly empty but it doesn’t dry completely. Most of the time it’s a series large mucky, briny puddles strewn amid the playa, the salt-encrusted mudflats stretching in every direction to the horizon. High salinity is typical for endorheic basins. The alkali salts eroding from the landscape have nowhere to flow except towards the lowest point of the watershed, which is not the sea. The salt deposits of Lake Eyre are appear quite visibly as massive white patches in the satellite image, below.
But every once in awhile the stars align, the winds shift, the weather changes just enough, maybe a La Niña pattern kicks-in with particular ferocity, the lake begins to wake and it expands exponentially over the nearly flat terrain. It’s times like these when the sailors get excited.
The annual monsoons will sometimes dump unusually heavy rainfall on the intermittent rivers of the Queensland outback, too much to suck into the ground or yank back into the sky, and the waters may flow through the Channel Country all the way to Lake Eyre. Locally-heavy rains have less distance to travel and fewer opportunities to evaporate and that can also contribute. Lake Eyre may rise 3 to 6 metres as a result of these particularly rainy periods, and while that may not sound like a lot it’s enough to create a vast inland sea.
The Yacht Club swings into action during these special times, heading towards the waters from their clubhouse in Marree. Indeed, the Lake Eyre Yacht Club maintains a facility a hundred kilometres or so from its namesake, waiting patiently in the blazing heat and choking dust for those rare moments when they can demonstrate nautical their skills on open waters. I’m not sure whether I would call them as dedicated or deluded, perhaps a touch of both, but I applaud their enthusiasm.
Their Yacht Club is somewhere near here. You can see what it actually looks from these images on Panoramio and Flicker. The Panoramio photo has a geo-tag that equals the Street View image displayed above, but as you can plainly see, it’s not here. I’m not sure if that’s because it hadn’t been built yet or whether the geo-tag was wrong (the Yacht Club website says it’s on Railway Terrace North so I think the image may be a block off, but hopefully someday a club member will find this entry and provide better information). Actually I’m surprised a Steet View image is even available because this is Marree:
Sailing on Lake Eyre is not for the feint of heart. The sailing itself isn’t the trouble assuming one pays attention to the weather, it’s the extreme amount of effort required to launch a boat and later return to dry land that becomes an issue.
First, consider the terrain. It’s brutally rugged, lightly traversed and totally unforgiving. People can die when their vehicles break or bog down if they don’t have sufficient provisions for a protracted stay. Next, there are only three spots where boats can actually be launched and they’re not like the landings on a typical lake. Mariners need to pull their craft a kilometre or more to water’s edge unless they want to get stuck up to their axles in muck (see previous consideration). Finally prevailing winds change the nature and shape of the lake significantly because of its extreme shallowness. It is highly susceptible to seiches or "wind tides," a condition not unlike hurricane storm surges, that push great volumes of water from one part of the basin to another. A sudden wind shift can leave a boater quickly stranded on the wrong side of a newly emptied lakebed, now separated from the launch by several kilometres.
The "yachts" must be adapted to the unique topographical characteristics of the lake. Vessels need to have a shallow draft to avoid grounding in the flat waters and they need to be light enough to be pulled long distances across the mud as necessary. Fiberglass canoes with homemade outriggers and masts are a common choice.
The surface of Lake Eyre remains below sea level even during the rainiest of times. Yacht Club members beg to differ up to a point. As they say, "while this is obviously quite correct, as mariners, the LEYC members like to sail on the sea rather than below it and so refer to depth as such – the amount of water above the lowest point in each of the basins."
Nothing will stop these lakebed yachtsmen.
A Completely Different Subject
I saw an article in Smithsonian today that might interest some of you: Micronations of the World. "Explore these mock sovereign states fueled by local disputes, utopian idealism and the imaginations of a few eccentric individuals"