It was once a source of great abundance—particularly fossil fuels and fish—for the people of Venezuela. Now Lake Maracaibo is mostly abundant with pollution from leaking oil and excess nutrients.
Spanning 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles) in northwestern Venezuela, Lake Maracaibo is one of South America’s largest lakes and one of the oldest in the world. Though it was filled with freshwater thousands of year ago, Maracaibo is now an estuarine lake connected to the Gulf of Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea by a narrow strait. That strait was significantly expanded in the 1930–50s by dredging for ship traffic. Now the north end of the lake is brackish, while the south end is mostly fresh due to abundant flows from nearby rivers.
In satellite images acquired in September 2021, Lake Maracaibo was swirling with shades of green, tan, and gray that traced the flow of currents and eddies. The sources of those colors were algae, river sediment outflows, and crude oil leaks. The image at the top of this page was acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite on September 25. The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 observed the scene below on September 10.
One of the largest known oil and gas reserves in the world sits beneath Lake Maracaibo. Thousands of wells have been drilled into the lake since World War I, first by foreign companies and then by Venezuela’s state-run oil company. About two-thirds of the oil produced by the country comes from this region.
But the fuel that once made Maracaibo prosperous is now endangering wildlife, water quality, and human health. According to many news and scientific reports, the region’s oil-extraction and delivery infrastructure is in serious disrepair. Slicks have been a regular occurrence on the lake for many years, and crude oil often washes up on the shores. “The oil spills are multiple and continuous, and you can easily spot the sources,” noted Eduardo Klein-Salas, a remote sensing scientist at Simón Bolívar University. “Maracaibo Lake has more than 10,000 oil-related installations and a network of thousands of kilometers of underwater pipelines, most of them 50 years old.”