In the early 1980s, the Great Salt Lake had an elevation of just over 4,000 feet and a surface area of about 2,300 square miles. Rich with minerals and home to a variety of animal species, the massive lake was recognized as a natural phenomenon in an arid region of the United States.
Today, more than 750 square miles of the lakebed is exposed — which is roughly the size of the Hawaiian island of Kauai, according to Dr. Kevin Perry, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah and a leading researcher of lakebed dust at the Great Salt Lake.
The lake was a topic of interest at Thursday night’s Salty Science Series, a virtual webinar hosted by Westminster College that featured keynote speakers including Dr. Perry; Wendy Wilson, an assistant manager at Antelope Island State Park; and Dr. Sarah Null, an associate professor in the department of watershed sciences at Utah State University.
The main reason for the lake’s exposure in the last 40 years is because of human use, according to Null.
“We estimate that the lake would be about 11 vertical feet taller if there’s no human influence,” Null said during her presentation at Salty Science Series.
The average Utah resident uses 150 to 200 gallons of water every day, which is the second highest per capita in the United States, according to the United States Geological Survey — just behind Nevada. This can be attributed to the large properties and green lawns many Utah homeowners live on, which require large amounts of water, according to Null.
But that’s just a fraction of the water that gets used from the Great Salt Lake. Agriculture uses another 63% of the lake’s water sources, according to Dr. Null.
“For things like urban and agricultural uses, the water is diverted before it reaches the lake,” Null said.
These high levels of water diversion lead scientists like Null and Perry to believe that the historic lake levels of the Great Salt Lake may never be restored.
While the lake is still a valuable source of magnesium and other minerals, Dr. Kevin Perry warned of potential “hot spots” where exposed lakebed crust could lead to more frequent and severe dust storms, directly impacting residents along the Wasatch Front.
“More dust could be put up on the snowpack in the Wasatch, which accelerates melting up there,” Perry said, “and, potentially, more toxics could be transported.”
Perry took over 5,000 soil samples around the lakebed over the course of 122 days. It was during this journey that Perry rode his bicycle — which he nicknamed the “Dust Devil” — over 2,300 miles around the Great Salt Lake, where he measured the chemical composition of the dust to determine if there were any hazardous metals within the exposed crust.
One of the potential hotspots is located on Farmington Bay, just southeast of Antelope Island, where many Utah residents recreate year-round, according to Perry.
Wendy Wilson, an assistant manager at Antelope Island, said that restrictions are in place on the island to keep visitors from disrupting the ecosystem.
“It’s already kind of a fragile landscape,” Wilson said. “We’ve got about 40 or 50 miles of trails, and the majority of those are within an area that we require folks to stay on.”
As of now, there is no real cause for concern. Only around 9% of the lakebed has the potential to release dust, according to Perry’s findings. However, biologist Bonnie Baxter, who heads Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute, said that as the lake levels continue to decrease, so will the amount of exposed lakebed.
“The number of acres [of exposed lakebed] are going to get larger. The number of problem sites are likely to increase and maybe even other problem sites appear because of less groundwater,” said Baxter in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune. “So maybe this site isn’t a significant air-quality problem now, but that could change.”
If you missed the Salty Science Series and would like to watch it, visit the link here to view a recorded YouTube video.