Lake Merzbacher | Kyrgyzstan’s mysterious “disappearing lake”

In eastern Kyrgyzstan, deep within the remote Tien Shan mountain range, hides a phenomenon called Lake Merzbacher. Despite the breathtaking views, Lake Merzbacher is best known for its unique ability to vanish within days – hence it is commonly known as “the disappearing lake”.

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Lake Merzbacher. (Getty Images)

The lake was first discovered by accident in 1903. German explorer and cartographer Gottfried Merzbacher was charting the Tien Shan range, specifically the Khan Tengri peak which had not accurately been mapped before, when he encountered the glacial lake deep into the mountains. 

Lake Merzbacher is itself nearly 11,000 feet above sea level, but is only in the foothills compared to the two peaks it sits in between. Khan Tengri is the second highest peak in the Tien Shan mountains at 6,995 meters (22,950 feet), with only Pobeda Peak climbing higher at 7,439 meters (24,406 feet). Both of these peaks lie on the Kyrgyzstan-China border, with Lake Merzbacher just to the west.

lake merzbacher kyrgyzstan
The upper part of the Inylchek Glacier and Lake Merzbacher. (Getty Images)

It is what is known as a proglacial lake, spending most of the year dammed by the ice of the Inylchek Glacier. If the temperature rises, however, and the ice melts, the glacier buoys upwards creating a series of englacial channels, breaking the dam and allowing Lake Merzbacher to discharge rapidly. 

When the natural dam bursts, the water moves at such a speed that it can have a catastrophic effect on the surrounding valley. It typically drains into the Inylchek River in just three days, with water flowing at speeds of up to 1000m³ a second and causing flash flooding. It can also affect the extensive infrastructure on the Aksu River in China.

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People in the Tien Shan, circa 1890-1900. Todd 218. (Photo by A. Bayley-Worthington/Todd/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Once the lake has emptied, the glacier lowers back down and closes the passages through which the water escaped. In turn, Lake Merzbacher fills back up and the cycle repeats itself.

This happens at least once a year, and sometimes twice. As global temperatures continue to rise, the rate of the lake’s outbursts and the subsequent floods will continue to rise.

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Kyrgyzstan is home to thousands of lakes, but Lake Merzbacher is the only one where this cycle occurs. While proglacial lakes can lead to similar flooding across the globe, Merzbacher is highly unusual in its annual cycle and in its permanent existence. Other proglacial lakes usually grow until the glacier retreats, or simply have a far shorter lifespan than Lake Merzbacher.   

It is difficult to predict when exactly the outburst will happen. Usually, it takes place in August but it has been known to occur as early as mid-July. Being there at the right time is just the start of the challenge for anyone hoping to see the phenomenon in person. The trek is challenging and takes multiple days, climbing into a remote corner of an isolated mountain range.

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