Salt pond colors

Salt ponds range from blue green to deep magenta – colored naturally by the microorganisms that thrive as salinity levels increase.

Three microorganisms in particular, Synechococcus, Halobacteria, and Dunaliella, influence the color of salt ponds.

In the low-salinity ponds, both color and microbiology match the blue green waters of San Francisco Bay. As the brines concentrate, several algae, including Dunaliella, impart a green cast to the brines. With increasing salinity, Dunaliella out-competes other microorganisms and hues vary from pale green to bright chartreuse.

About midway through the pond system, the increased salinity promotes huge populations of tiny brine shrimp, which  clarify the brine and darken it. The saltiest brine, or pickle, appears deep red, because Halobacteria take over and the hypersaline brine triggers a red pigment to form in the Dunaliella’s protoplasm.

The palette of salt pond colors reflects an unusual micro-biota. Yet it is more than just a curiosity of nature. The algae and other microorganisms create the basis for a rich ecosystem, supporting more than a million shorebirds, waterfowl and other wildlife. At the same time, these tiny creatures regulate water quality -- which promotes development of a higher quality salt.