Crystal Horizons: The Largest Salt Flats in the World

The biggest salt flats in the world are testament to the majesty of Mother Nature. They rank among the world’s most stunning natural features and span thousands of square kilometres in the planet’s most remote locations. Read on to discover the astonishing size and scale of the world’s largest salt flat.

Building Big Engineering
25 July 2023

Our planet is home to many incredible natural wonders, but perhaps the most overlooked are salt flats. Breathtakingly beautiful yet ruthlessly harsh, seemingly barren yet brimming with life’s essential elements, the largest salt flats in the world hold stories millions of years in the making.

Yet, these snow-white landscapes are far from being mere tourist attractions or Insta-perfect images. These vast salt flats are reservoirs of critical natural resources. They house enormous deposits of lithium, a metal crucial to our modern existence.

This ‘new white gold’ powers smartphones and laptops, and is increasingly fuelling the global transition to sustainable energy by being the backbone of electric vehicle batteries. Let’s take a look at the world’s most famous salt flats, as well as the contenders for the title of world’s biggest salt flat.

What are Salt Flats?

Salt flats in Death Valley National Park, California, USA (Credit: Nature, food, landscape, travel via Getty Images)

A salt flat typically forms in a basin, a low-lying region, where water rich in dissolved salts and minerals accumulates. Over time, the water evaporates, often under harsh desert conditions, leaving behind a concentrated deposit of salts. This cycle of flooding and evaporation, taking place over thousands, sometimes millions of years, eventually gives birth to these magnificent salt flats.

The biggest salt flats in the world, also known as salars, are geological marvels that have been meticulously crafted over millions of years. Their genesis lies in the union of specific environmental and geological conditions that are as captivating as they are complex.

But where is the world’s largest salt flat? Let’s find out.

Bonneville Salt Flats

Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, United States, USA. (Credit: Jameel Hyder / 500px via Getty Images)

Location: Utah, USA | Size: Approx. 100 km2

Bonneville, around 170 kilometres west of Salt Lake City, is probably the most famous salt flats in the world, thanks in part to the Bonneville Speedway, where numerous land speed record attempts have taken place since the 1930s.

The flats were named after US Army officer and explorer Benjamin Bonneville. Their formation dates back to between 14,500 and 17,000 years ago, when a prehistoric pluvial lake began to evaporate leaving behind vast salt deposits. Bonneville, one of a number of salt flats in northwestern Utah, is believed to hold around 133 million tonnes of salt, 90% of which is common table salt.

Etosha Pan

Zebras casually stroll upon the salt flats at Etosha National Park (Credit: Peter Loring via Getty Images)

Location: Etosha National Park, Namibia | Size: Approx. 4,800 km2

Translated as ‘great white place’ in the Namibian Oshindonga dialect, Etosha is surrounded by dense woodland. On this former lake’s southern edge, herds of elephants are regularly spotted.

Geological experts theorise that tectonic plate movements over a period of approximately ten million years led to the formation of the pan, one of the largest salt flats in the world. Roughly 16,000 years ago, coinciding with the melting of ice sheets across the northern continents, a moist climate phase in southern Africa resulted in the filling of Etosha Lake. In its current state, the Etosha Pan predominantly showcases parched clay mud, segmented into hexagonal shapes due to drying and cracking.

Makgadikgadi Pan

Aerial view of the salt flats at Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana. (Credit: Martin Harvey via Getty Images)

Location: Northeastern Botswana | Size: Approx. 4,900 km2

One of the biggest salt flats in the world, Makgadikgadi Pan is all that remains of Lake Makgadikgadi, a vast lake between 80,000 and 275,000 km2 that was located in what is now the Kalahari Desert. It’s believed, according to studies of mitochondrial DNA, modern Homo sapiens first began to evolve in this region around 200,000 years ago.

The outer edges of the salt pan are home to marshes and baobab trees. As the rain comes, the salt flat becomes a vital habitat for migrating wildebeest and one of the biggest zebra populations in Africa. It also serves as a sanctuary for a large breeding colony of greater flamingos, one of just two in southern Africa.

Chott el Djerid

Natural salts found at Chott el Djerid. (Credit: Hans Neleman via Getty Images)

Location: Sahara Desert, Tunisia | Size: Approx. 5,000 km2

Dry for most of the year with daytime temperatures reaching as high as 50°C, the Chott el Djerid salt pan, which translates as ‘Lagoon of the Land of Palms’, is one of the largest salt flats in the world. During the rainy season, it can temporarily fill with a thin layer of water. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind an expanse of hard, crusty salt, often tinted pink, green or purple due to the presence of certain algae.

Chott el Djerid is also one of the most famous salt flats in the world, especially for Star Wars fans. It was one of the filming locations for the Lars homestead on the planet Tatooine, the home of Luke Skywalker.

Salar de Uyuni

Salt flats of Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (Credit: Ignacio Palacios via Getty Images)

Location: Potosí, Bolivia | Size: Approx. 10,600 km2

Located over 3,600 metres above sea level on the crest of the Andes mountains in southwestern Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni is the world’s biggest salt flat. According to estimates from radiocarbon dating, it was formed when the giant prehistoric Lake Minchin began drying up around 30,000 – 40,000 years ago. Indeed the world’s largest salt flat is so flat, it’s believed NASA use the surface to calibrate sensors on board orbiting satellites.

The amount of salt at Salar de Uyuni is estimated to be approximately ten billion tonnes and in some areas is around ten metres thick. It’s also thought to contain millions of tonnes of lithium.

Crystal Clear - The Vitality of Salt Flats

Salt flats in East Taijinar Lake, China (Credit: Wang Yukun via Getty Images)

The largest salt flats in the world create some of the most ethereal landscapes on Earth. Testament to the ceaseless work of nature, shaping and crafting these breathtaking scenes over countless millennia. Each tells a unique tale of geological transformation and adaptation.

Not only do these salt flats serve as stunning vistas and magnificent natural wonders, they also play a crucial role in modern life, holding essential elements and minerals that power technology and could potentially fuel the future.


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