Orbital View: Ghost Town by the Sea

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s an eerie image of a once-popular vacation spot at the Salton Sea in southern California:

#saltonsea #california

A photo posted by The Jefferson Grid (@the.jefferson.grid) on

Chris Iovenko provided some great background on the Salton Sea in a piece for us last November warning about the area’s toxic dust:

At 235 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea occupies what was once known as the Salton Sink, a forbidding sunken expanse of ancient dry lake bed with a black mud sub-surface that made crossings treacherous. The area was generally avoided until the end of the 19th century, when land developers realized that the area’s alluvial soil and the hot climate would, with irrigation from the nearby Colorado River, produce valuable farmland. A series of canals were built and water flowed in; soon, more than 10,000 farmers and farm workers relocated to the Salton Sink, now grandly rechristened the Imperial Valley, and quickly put 100,000 acres of land under cultivation.

In the spring of 1905, following extreme rains, the Colorado River flooded and blew out a weakly constructed irrigation canal. All efforts to seal the breach failed—for 18 months, the river continued to flood into the Salton Sink, filling it up with fresh water like an enormous shallow tub [covering nearly a thousand square miles of land. ...]

In the 1950’s, with the rising popularity of the nearby desert resort of Palm Springs, developers once again saw opportunity in the Salton Sea. Towns like Salton City and Bombay Beach cropped up along its shoreline, along with resorts catering to tourists interested in water sports, fishing, and swimming. Meanwhile, fish that had been introduced to the lake were flourishing, and by the late 1950’s the Salton Sea was the most productive fishery in California. At its peak, the Salton Sea was drawing 1.5 million visitors annually, more than Yosemite.

Unfortunately, little thought and few resources were devoted to the management of this accidental lake. As a terminal lake, the Salton Sea lacks any outflow, and in the late 1970s a series of heavy tropical storms caused the water level to rapidly rise and flood its banks. The surrounding towns and businesses were severely damaged, many beyond repair, and tourism began to shift away. In the 1990s the lake began to recede dramatically, stranding many of the remaining residences and businesses, as changing water-management priorities diverted more water from agricultural areas to cities. [...]

By the early 2000s, it had become clear that the lake was headed for disaster: The agricultural runoff that sustained the lake contained not only fertilizer and pesticides, but high quantities of salt. Over the years, the salinity rose enough to kill off the lake’s fish species, even salt-water fish.  

Our video team posted this short documentary by Jim Lo Scalzo featuring some harrowing images of the area:

In response to the video, our own James Fallows shared a personal connection with the doomed Salton Sea:

It is particularly interesting/alarming for me, because I could well have been in one of those shots from the Leave it to Beaver era. Several times in the late Fifties and early Sixties my dad would dragoon the rest of us for the broiling drive down through the desert to Salton City and neighboring developments, with the fantasy that it could be a “good investment” for the family to buy a lakeshore lot there. Thank goodness he never followed through.

(See all Orbital Views here)