A playa is a dry lakebed, generally the shore of, or a remnant of, an endorheic lake. Such flats consist of fine-grained sediments infused with alkali salts. Playas are also known as alkali flats, sabkhas, dry lakes or mud flats; if the surface is primarily salt then they are called salt pans or salt flats.
Their surface is generally very dry, hard and smooth in the summer months, but wet and very soft in the winter months. Playas are small, round depressions in the surface of the ground. A playa lake is formed when rain fills this hole with water, creating a small lake. Playas can also form when the water table intersects the surface and water seeps into them.
Playas are typically formed in semi-arid and arid regions of the world. The largest concentration of playa lakes in the world (nearly 22,000) is on the Southern High Plains of Texas and Eastern New Mexico. While most playa lakes are very small, other examples of playa lakes include Lake Alablab in Suguta, Kenya, and Wild Horse Lake, Oklahoma, USA. Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, near Potosí, is the largest salt flat in the world at 4,085 square miles (10,582 square km).
Many playas contain shallow lakes in the winter, especially during wet years. If the layer of water is thin and is moved around the playa by the wind, an exceedingly hard and smooth surface can develop. Thicker layers of water can result in a "cracked-mud" surface and "teepee" structure desiccation features. Very little water can result in dune formation.
Geological curiosityRacetrack Playa is a place in Death Valley National Park, very famous for its 'sailing stones', rocks that mysteriously move across its surface.
EcologyWhile the playa itself will be devoid of vegetation, they are commonly ringed by shadscale, saltbrush and other salt-tolerant plants that provide critical winter fodder for livestock and other herbivores.
In the U.S., playas are important sources of habitat for wildlife, including waterfowl such as ducks and geese, along with sandhill cranes and shorebirds. Amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders also depend on playas, along with various invertebrates such as fairy shrimp. The U.S. playas also play a crucial role to the Ogallala Aquifer, as one of the sole recharging sites for this enormous aquifer.
Threats to playas include pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations such as cattle feedlots and dairies, erosion, fertilizer, pesticide, and sediment runoff from farms, and overgrazing.
Human useThe extremely flat, smooth, and hard surfaces of playas make them ideal surfaces for motor vehicles and bicycles. Large-sized playas are further excellent spots for pursuing land speed records, as the smoothness of the surface allows low-clearance vehicles to travel very fast without risk of disruption by surface irregularities, and the course of travel does not need to be too precise to avoid obstacles. The playas at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and Black Rock Desert in Nevada have both been used for setting land speed records.
TerminologyThe Spanish word playa () literally means "beach". Alkali flats are known by this name in some parts of Mexico and the western United States (). On the Llano Estacado and other parts of the Southern High Plains, playa refers to a playa lake, a smaller seasonal depression.
In Arabic, an alkali flat is called a sabkha (also spelled sabkhah, subkha or sebkha) or shott (chott).
playa in Arabic: سبخة
playa in Czech: Playa
playa in German: Salztonebene
playa in Indonesian: Playa
playa in Norwegian: Saltslette
playa in Polish: Playa
playa in Romanian: Playa
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