Earth from space: Trio of multicolor lakes look otherworldly in Africa's Great Rift Valley

A satellite image of Lake Shala (blue), Lake Abijatta (green) and Lake Langano (yellow) captured by the Landsat 8 satellite on March 29.
Lake Shala (left), Lake Abijatta (center) and Lake Langano (right) each have a unique color. (Image credit: Joshua Stevens/Landsat 8/NASA Earth Observatory)
Quick facts

Where is it? Great Rift Valley, Ethiopia [7.518881, 38.650099].

What's in the photo? From left to right: Lake Shala, Lake Abijatta and Lake Langano.

Which satellite took the photo? Landsat 8. 

When was it taken? March 29, 2022.

The trio of lakes in this striking image each have a different color thanks to a combination of factors including depth, water chemistry and inhabiting wildlife. This is very strange, not only because of the lakes' proximity but because in the not-too-distant past (geologically speaking), they were once part of the same ancient lake, according to NASA's Earth Observatory.

The three lakes are Lake Shala, which has a deep-blue hue; Lake Abijata, which is green; and Lake Langano, which has a sandy-yellow hue similar to the surrounding landscape. The trio is located in Ethiopia's Great Rift Valley, around 125 miles (200 kilometers) south of the country's capital, Addis Ababa. 

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Lake Shala is around 7.5 miles (12 km) long and 17 miles (28 km) across at its widest point. It is the deepest of the three lakes, with a maximum depth of 873 feet (266 meters), which is why its waters appear dark blue from above. It is a soda lake, meaning it is highly alkaline (has a very high pH). Despite the extreme conditions, the lake contains a large number of small crustaceans and microorganisms that support large flocks of visiting flamingos and pelicans.

Flamingos standing along the shore of Lake Abijata

At ground level, the distinct green hues of Lake Abijata are much less obvious. (Image credit: Joel ARPAILLANGE via Getty Images)

Lake Abijata, which is around 11 miles (17 km) long and 9 miles (15 km) wide, is the shallowest of the three lakes, with a maximum depth of 46 feet (14 m). As a result, it is highly variable and has lost around one-third of its area over the last 50 years. The lake's green color is most likely due to a bloom of phytoplankton on its surface, which also attracts a large number of birds. 

Lake Langano is around 11 miles (18 km) long and 10 miles (16 km) across. It is fed mostly by streams to the east, which dump brown sediment from nearby mountains into the water — giving it its yellow color. Langano is a popular destination for beachgoers because it is the only lake in the area not inhabited by parasitic worms that can transmit a potentially fatal disease known as schistosomiasis.

However, until around 10,000 years ago, the three lakes were part of a single massive body of water, named Lake Galla, which disappeared after changing rainfall patterns and tectonic motion altered the surrounding landscape.

Harry Baker
Senior Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based senior staff writer at Live Science. He studied marine biology at the University of Exeter before training to become a journalist. He covers a wide range of topics including space exploration, planetary science, space weather, climate change, animal behavior, evolution and paleontology. His feature on the upcoming solar maximum was shortlisted in the "top scoop" category at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Awards for Excellence in 2023.