The dismal state of the fascinating crater-formed Lonar Lake in Maharashtra is a reminder of human disregard towards its environment

Incredibly old at 50,000 years, the Lonar crater is the youngest and best preserved impact crater formed in basalt rock and is the only of its kind on earth.

Formed by a blazing ball of fire that weighed over one million ton in deadweight, it was a meteorite travelling at awesome speed of 80,000 km per hour. It pierced our blue planet and hit the earth with such fire, force and fury that it dug a deep depression in the rock-solid Deccan plateau. It crashed, exploded, erupted and spewed molten rock creating a magnificent crest on the rim covering a two kilometer diameter. Even though it was a mere chip of the moon, the hypervelocity impact of the 384,403 km travel from the moon to the earth, has left a dent 200 meters deep.

India’s vast territory has remote terrains, but none as extraordinary as the Lonar crater which forms a lake that lies close to the world famous Ajanta and Ellora caves. It is evident that urbanisation coupled with ever increasing population has led to an indiscriminate invasion of human activities in Lonar and this has created a constant threat to the ecosystem and its remarkable biodiversity. The lake also happens to be a captive water-body, hence the concentration of chemicals has been on the rise and has caused irreversible pollution.

Dr S Kurhade, Professor of Zoology from Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, who has a penchant for ornithology, says, “The unique Lonar Lake with alkaline and saline waters is being polluted in recent years by waste waters discharged and dumped from a nearby town. Even though the lush environment of the crater has been declared a wildlife sanctuary, it needs enhanced protection. Marauding pilgrims and increasing pollution is disturbing its substantial flora and fauna with about 100 resident and migratory birds."

The Lonar Lake is an exceptional ‘bowl of biodiversity’ and a wildlife sanctuary. It is land locked with extraordinary water qualities, and has no inlets, outlets nor does the water seep into the ground. It is fed by underground streams that are now dehydrating due to human folly. However, since ancient time, every summer the lake would go dry and the salt that was formed at the lake bottom was being harvested. The remarkable shape, size and samples of celestial leftovers have lent uniqueness to this crater. These exceptional traits have attracted constant attention of ecologists, geologists and astronomers from the across the globe. It has been the subject of several scientific studies on various aspects of crater ecosystem, yet it is seemingly unknown to the general public.

Even though the lake waters are devoid of fish, the Lonar crater is a bird-watchers paradise. Apart from parakeets and peafowl, there are crow pheasants, blue jays, bee-eaters, dabchicks, ducks, hoopoes, kestrels, lapwings, minivets, shovellers, spot-bills, swallows, stilts, wagtails, woodpeckers and other winged fauna. One can spot numerous langurs in the area and occasionally bats, deer, monitor lizards, mongoose and snakes.

Located 170 km northeast of Aurangabad and about 550 km from Mumbai, the fascinating site remained relatively unknown until it was conclusively identified as a meteorite crater only about two decades ago. Initially it was thought to be part of the volcanic upsurge and down-surge caused by the molten lava during the formation of the Deccan plateau.

It was first noticed 190 years ago by British explorer, A J Alexander, who went investigating the region. He found ancient temples in a dilapidated condition and strange ecology in a cavernous basin.

It was vastly different from the surrounding flat landscape even though it was discovered 57 years before the Ajanta caves. Strangely, both the Lonar crater and the Ajanta caves were chance discoveries by British explorers. Even more bizarre is ‘Lonar’, the name of the nearby village that is akin to the English word ‘lunar’, as if early Indians had the requisite knowledge that the crater was created by moon rock.

Last month, think-tanks in the USA sent out worldwide alerts that the earth’s rare metal content is diminishing fast as it is furiously being consumed because of human greed. The only viable alternative envisaged was to source the sky by mining the moon or meteorites and excavate asteroids. This commercial thought of exploring the space was basically derived after having studied 175 known craters on earth containing traces of moon minerals, including India’s Lonar crater.

It is tragic that the lake which holds together a unique ecosystem, and has aided human civilization in its quest for understanding the mysteries of the universe, is in desperate need of intervention.