A Disappearing Great Salt Lake Could Cause a Poisonous Dust Bowl

A Disappearing Great Salt Lake Could Cause Poisonous Dust Bowl

The Great Salt Lake is at a 170-year low and getting smaller. If it continues, arsenic in the lake bed will become exposed, toxifying the air for nearby residents and creating what climate reporter Christopher Flavelle calls an "environmental nuclear bomb.” The effects could be similar to those of Owens Lake in California, which dried up when the Owens River was diverted by the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the early 20th Century. The dry lakebed then became the largest single source of dust pollution in the US, costing the state millions. If this were to occur in the Salt Lake Valley, home to nearly three-quarters of Utah’s population, more than one million residents would be forced to breathe in toxic air. Experts warn the impacts will be felt immediately.

CBS: Scientists warn of poisonous air if Utah's Great Salt Lake dries up, June 9, 2022.

The Great Salt Lake is also home to flies and brine shrimp which feed around 10 million migratory birds each year. Due to current drought conditions, these food sources are in danger of a massive die-off as early as this summer. Impacts on biodiversity in the area would be unavoidable.

On the economic side, Utah’s snow produced by cold water passing over the Great Salt Lake has been dubbed "The Greatest Snow on Earth" and keeps the state’s lucrative ski resorts in business. Already impacted by warming temperatures, the loss of the lake would hit Utah’s ski industry hard (2020 saw $1.5 billion in economic impact to the state). As for Utah’s mining economy, mineral extractions from the lake, like magnesium and others, would also be halted.

FOX: How climate change is affecting Utah's birds, April 25, 2021.

WW0: Protecting Our Winters, Earth Day, April 22, 2021.

TED: Climate Change And How It Is Damaging The Ski Industry | Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski, November 6, 2019.

Why This Matters

The impacts of climate change are becoming more personal and harder to ignore. To reverse aridification, more water must flow to the lake. That means Utah residents and agriculture will need to sacrifice some of their own supply of the resource. Ensuring the lake requires immediate action, but it’s still unclear just how fast and far people are willing to go in response to climate change. On the upside, the situation has led the state’s government to approve a bipartisan measure establishing a $40 million fund to buy water rights and provide other solutions to save the Great Salt Lake.

MSNBC: Salt Lake City could become 'unlivable' with the shrinking Great Salt Lake, June 16, 2022.

Global Water Security Is Next

In Chile, the Peñuelas reservoir -- once the primary water source for nearby Valparaiso -- is almost completely dry due to a 13-year drought. The reservoir once held enough water for 38,000 Olympic-size swimming pools but now only holds enough for two. As a result, water shortages have "fueled tensions over supplies needed for farming and lithium mining and spurred the Chilean capital of Santiago to prepare for rationing,” Yale Environment 360 reports.

The Great Salt Lake is just one of countless bodies of water impacted by a 20-year megadrought in the US West. And globally, leaders are now taking water scarcity seriously as an effect of climate change. At just 2 degrees Celsius of warming, between 800 million and 3 billion people around the world could face chronic water scarcity. This week, the US identified it as a national security issue for the first time in history.

Reuters: Historic drought turns Chilean lake into a desert, June 14, 2022.

Strait Talk: Middle East Suffers Through Worst Drought in Decades, December 14, 2021.

The Hill: Kamala Harris WARNS wars will be fought over water, not oil, April 7, 2021.

National Geographic: Global Water Wars (Full Episode) | Parched, July 29, 2021.