McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica are rich with very unusual landmarks – almost everything in this extreme environment is unique. Lake Bonney – one of the few liquid lakes in Antarctica – is one of such unusual landmarks. Nowhere else on Earth there is known a natural place where the "laughing gas" (nitrous oxide) is found in such high concentration.

McMurdo Dry Valleys

Just a few locations in Antarctica are not covered with ice and are flat and large enough to have streams and lakes.

The largest ice-free region in Antarctica is McMurdo Dry Valleys. This region is some 4,800 km² large and is one of the driest places on Earth. Katabatic winds which "fall down" from the vast ice plains of Antarctica are working like a giant hairdryer and due to this, the valleys have almost no life. Here is just dry gravel and cliffs. This landscape is similar to a landscape of other, lifeless planets.

These extreme conditions have created unusual natural landmarks, such as lakes with unique chemical composition.

Description of Lake Bonney

History of exploration

Humans reached Lake Bonney during the British Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904 (Discovery Expedition). Next expedition named it after geology professor at the University College London, Thomas George Bonney.

US National Science Foundation started the long-term research of the lakes in McMurdo Valleys in 1993. This research – Long-Term Ecosystem Research Programme – has brought rich material about these exotic ecosystems.

In 2008 and 2009 the lake was explored by submersible robot ENDURANCE. This project was financed by NASA in order to prepare for the exploration of objects elsewhere in the space, for example – in the ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Size and location

Lake Bonney is fairly large: some 7 km long and up to 0.9 km wide. It is located 57 – 60 m above the sea level.

Due to the harsh Antarctic climate Lake Bonney is permanently covered with 3.7 – 4.5 m thick ice. Less than 5% of sunlight is passing through the ice – thus the lake is in eternal darkness or almost darkness. Only in summer, there may open a narrow moat in the ice.

As the lake is permanently covered with ice, the water here is not mixed by the wind. Streams in the lake are very weak as well. Calculations show that the retention time (full water exchange time) exceeds 50 thousand years.

Narrow, approximately 50 m wide and 12 – 13 m deep chasm divides the lake into two parts: the western and the eastern lobes. Each of the lobes is up to 40 m deep and they have very distinct chemical and biological properties.

The lake water is deprived of nutrients – there is extreme phosphorus deficiency. Nevertheless in the deeper parts of the lake live microorganisms – cyanobacteria, proteobacteria, algae, also ciliates.

Level of the lake changes. Thus, in the time period between 1903 and 1970, it increased per 12 m. At some times the lake was divided into two parts. Each of these parts evolved separately and now has different geochemical and biological properties. Later, when the upper layer of the water was added, it did not mix with the "original" lakes. Thus we have here two separate lakes which by occasion have been united by a top layer of "fresh" water which one day again may disappear.

Western lobe
Blood Falls from above, Antarctica
Blood Falls from above / Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation (United States Antarctic Program), public domain

The western part of the lake is smaller (1 – 2.1 km² – the area changes due to the movements of Taylor Glacier) and is located at the end of Taylor Glacier.

Here the lake meets another very unusual natural landmark: orange colored icefall or spring – Blood Falls. This spring is an opening into unusual ecosystem below Taylor Glacier, which for more than one million years does not have contact to the outside world.

Chemocline – border between the less mineralised upper layer of the lake and hypersaline deeper part of the lake – here is at the depth of some 15 m. Below the chemocline the water is not just very salty: it contains also dissolved dimethylsulfide ((CH3)2S). This substance is fairly common: for example, it causes the smell of decaying algae at the sea. Nevertheless the extremely high concentration of dimethylsulfide in the western lobe of Lake Bonney is nearly unique in the world.

Eastern lobe

Eastern lobe is larger than the western: it is 3.3 – 3.8 km² large. Here the chemocline is located deeper, at the depth of some 20 meters.

This part of the lake is oversaturated with N2O – nitrous oxide is known also as "laughing gas". The concentration of this gas in the lobe below the chemocline exceeds the normal concentration of N2O 5,800 times. Nowhere on Earth, it has been found in such amount.

Even above the ice of the lake the concentration of N2O is per 45% higher than usual because the gas seeps through the ice in the atmosphere. A sudden release of this gas in large amounts can put us in danger – it has good ability to eliminate the layer of stratospheric ozone above the Earth.

This lobe contains also record-high concentration of dimethylsulfoxide ((CH3)2S0) which creates garlic taste on the skin but is not toxic.

Lake Bonney is included in the following list:

Cave of the Crystals, Mexico
Cave of the Crystals / Alexander Van Driessche, Wikimedia Commons / free for use
40 unique natural wonders of the world[/caption] This article is a kind of wonder by itself: after meticulous work of several years here has been collected a list of absolutely unique places, where nature has outdone itself and created something unique, just in one example.


  1. John C. Priscu, Malcolm T. Downes, Christopher P. McKay, Extreme Supersaturation of Nitrous Oxide in a Poorly Ventilated Antarctic Lake. Limnology and Oceanography, 1996, 1544-1551
Lake Bonney on the map
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Location, GPS coordinates: 77.7169 S 162.3998 E
Categories: Lakes and streams, Rare natural materials, Ecosystems
Values: Geology, Biology
Rating: 4 out of 10 stars
Where is located? Antarctic and Sub-antarctic region, Antarctica, East Antarctica, Victoria Land, McMurdo Dry Valleys, at the end of Taylor Glacier
Area: ˜ 500 ha

Landmarks of Antarctica

Onyx River - the largest in Antarctica
Onyx River – the largest in Antarctica / P.Wright, US Geological Survey, public domain
Antarctica is unusual continent, little known to general people and comparatively little investigated. Numerous kinds of landmarks, which are common in all other continents of the world, do not exist here – but this is compensated by several kinds of landmarks unique to Antarctica.

Lakes and streams

Champagne Pool, New Zealand
Champagne Pool / Photo by Mehlführer C, Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-2.5
There are many factors which can make lakes, sea bays or rivers unusual: some lakes have unusual chemical properties and even do not contain water at all – such as lava lakes. Other may have unusual animals living in them or… legends about such animals.

Recommended books

Antarctic Lakes

The Antarctic continent carries the greatest diversity of lake environments on the planet: freshwater and saline lakes, tidal freshwater epishelf lakes, lakes on ice shelves and glacier surfaces, and over three hundred subglacial lakes; extraordinary ecosystems that have been separated from the atmosphere for up to millions of years. This book provides a unique and cutting edge synthesis of Antarctic limnology, drawing together current knowledge on geomorphology, morphometry, chemistry, community structure and function.

Polar Lakes and Rivers

This is the first book to describe the ecology of high latitude lakes, rivers and glacial environments in both the North and South polar regions. From the lake-rich floodplains of the Arctic to the deep, enigmatic waters of Lake Vostok, Antarctica, these regions contain some of the most extraordinary aquatic ecosystems on Earth.

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