Vanishing Lakes: Great Salt Lake

By Matthew C. Pace

Apr 14 2023

Great Salt Lake is a shallow, highly saline, terminal lake situated in northern Utah. The Goshute call the lake Pi'a-pa ("big water") or Ti'tsa-pa ("bad water"). With water that is naturally saltier than the ocean and has high heavy metal concentrations, only plants that can withstand extreme environments call the Great Salt Lake home. The lake is also a major nesting and feeding site for migratory water fowl. The New York Botanical Garden led a multi-decade floristic inventory of the greater Intermountain region, including the Great Salt Lake, making NYBG a major source for regional botanical information.

Great Salt Lake is the remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville (which covered modern-day Great Salt Lake and the adjacent Great Salt Lake salt flats), and it has been undergoing long-term drying for the last several thousand years. The rate of drying has increased substantially over the last two decades due to the diversion of rivers, the decline of snow melt, and the ongoing megadrought of the North American southwest. The lake reached a record low area of ca. 950 sq miles in 2022, vs. ca. 3,300 sq miles in 1987.

Great Salt Lake concentrates salts and toxic heavy metals from the surrounding alkaline desert ecosystems, leading to the deposition of high levels of mercury, lead, nickel, arsenic, and selenium. As the lake dries and the lake bed is exposed, winds blow clouds of toxic heavymetal-laden dust over Salt Lake City, with severe implications for human and wildlife health. Plants that naturally occur in Great Salt Lake ecosystems have evolved to survive arid and high-salt environments, although it is unclear how these remarkable plants will adapt to rapidly changing conditions as the Great Salt Lake continues to dry.

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