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Reasons Why Rivers Turn Red

Reasons Why Rivers Turn Red


The United States is blessed with an abundance of waterways, rivers, and lakes. There are around 250,000 rivers with a combined length of 3.5 million miles. Of all these waterways, the Missouri river stands as the mightiest at over 3,700 km.


Many people enjoy rivers and lakes for their aesthetic value, picnicking nearby, or entering the waters for a swim. Kayaking is deeply popular in the states too, and millions of people take to the waters for a paddle regularly.


However, what would happen if you turned up to your local river for a couple of hours of paddling only to find the waters had turned red? This may seem unlikely to you, but it is something that can and does happen to rivers and other bodies of water.


This phenomenon isn’t restricted to red either. Rivers and lakes can turn brown, blue, green, pink, orange, and all manner of shades in between. So, what causes a river to turn red, or pink for that matter, and is it a danger to us and the environment? 

Is it unusual for rivers to change color?

It is actually very normal for rivers to look different as seasons change. Factors include the weather, soil runoff, and sediment.


For instance, heavy rainfall can cause a normally clear river to turn mud brown. Indeed, one tourist town in Laos is famous for its Blue Lagoons. However, many visitors were left disappointed as the rainy season had turned the normally azure water to mud-brown.


Rivers have been known to change direction, sometimes for unknown reasons. So, is it that unusual that they could change color too?


Sometimes, rivers change color far more dramatically than just going brown. Rivers can be crystal clear, they may be blue or green, but sometimes they even turn black. 

What are the factors determining these color changes?

The reasons that rivers and lakes sometimes change color aren’t always immediately clear. But, there are some factors that can affect the color of the water.


The nutrients and minerals in the river can have a major effect on the color. Different rivers will be made up of differing amounts of algae, and so this affects the color.


Then there is the environment surrounding the river’s banks. Factories and other buildings that discharge waste into rivers can have a huge effect on the health and appearance of that waterway.


Surrounding fields and meadows can also affect the color of the river with soil run-off changing the color of the water. The health of meadows and how they affect the environment are explained in more detail on Meadowia

Examples of colored bodies of water around the world

Rivers and lakes changing color is something that has been seen all over the world. Russia, Australia, the USA, Colombia, Peru, and the UK, have all got strangely colored bodies of water.


Some rivers have changed color seemingly overnight, much to the shock and horror of locals. 

The mystery of the Daldykan river

Locals in the Russian mining town of Norilsk woke to find that their river had turned blood red overnight back in 2016. Satellite images showed that this event had occurred several times before and the causes were undecided.


Some people believed that the oxidized iron in the river changed the color to red, while others blamed it on pollution from a nearby nickel factory. Not surprisingly perhaps, the factory spokesman denied the river had even changed color and it looked perfectly normal. 

Australia’s pink lakes

In Australia, there are a number of pink lakes that get their vivid color from high salt concentrations. While they are an Instagrammer’s dream, many people are too afraid to get in the water. Fortunately, they are perfectly safe though, and this is just a natural phenomenon. 

Grand Prismatic Spring

In the US, Yellowstone National Park is home to this intensely colored spring. The colors come from microbial mats around the edge of the spring. The colors displayed here move through the spectrum from green to red. 

What makes a river change color?

The different colors that a river can come from different causes. Depending on what has entered the water, either from nature, i.e. nutrients, and soil, or from man, i.e. pollutants, the color can be different.


The rainbow river in Colombia, for example, has perfectly clear water. To visitors though, the river moves through all the colors of the rainbow. This is caused by a range of colorful water plants under the surface.


Here are some other reasons that rivers turn red, and lakes turn pink. 


Sadly, one of the causes for rivers' changing colors can be man-made products. Waste from factories either being dumped on purpose or by accident can lead a river to change color. 


Green algae can turn water pink and sometimes red. Different algae are responsible for many of the water changes seen around the world. 


Believe it or not, it is possible to dye a river a different color. In fact, many Americans enjoy witnessing this event once a year in Chicago.


At St Patrick’s Day in the windy city, participants head to the river and change the color from its normal hues to something resembling emerald green.


While this dye is vegetable-based and said to be harmless, there are other instances of dyes entering the water and causing major problems.


CNN has reported that some of Asia’s rivers are turning black as the textile industry pours waste chemicals and dyes into them. Pink lakes look nice on Instagram, but black rivers should never be seen anywhere. 


Many of the salt lakes around the world change color during different seasons. It isn’t actually the salt that causes it but once again algae. Seasonal changes with algae help the lakes to change to a red color in many regions. 


This rock can wear down over time, either by the flow of the river or from heavy rain. The result is that certain minerals from the limestone then enter the river.


These minerals include manganese and iron, among others, and they can change the river color quite dramatically. Depending on the number of different minerals getting into the water, and other existing elements, the colors range from blue to green, and also orange through to red. 

Are colored rivers and lakes a danger to the environment?

Colored bodies of water and rivers are not necessarily a danger to people or the environment. Where the change has been caused by natural elements such as algae and iron, there is no risk to anyone.


However, when the color change has been caused by factories dispersing waste into the river, there is indeed cause for alarm. Fish and other wildlife are being destroyed by these factors and it can only be hoped that these practices will end. 


Healthy rivers have many ways of making soil fertile through nutrients and by depositing silt. It can sometimes be these same nutrients and minerals that change the color of a river to blue, green, or even red.


In most people’s minds, lakes and rivers should be blue, although of course water is clear, but sometimes you might stumble across a red, pink, or orange lake or river.


The chances are that if you do find a colored river in the US, it has been caused by natural changes in the water. Unless you are in Chicago on St Patrick’s Day that is.

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