The Great Salt Lake’s Toxic Dust Is Just One Sign of Its Imminent Collapse

Lizzy Rosenberg - Author

Jan. 12 2023, Published 12:13 p.m. ET

Great Salt Lake
Source: Getty Images

One of Utah's most iconic destinations, the Great Salt Lake, is on the brink of collapsing. A new study has revealed that receding water levels are causing a number of issues that could pose a risk to nearby communities and habitats alike.

One thing locals are most worried about is toxic dust released from Great Salt Lake's exposed lake beds. Thanks to receding water levels, toxins are being released into the air. That said, experts say this issue needs to be taken more seriously.

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"Despite encouraging growth in legislative action and public awareness, most Utahns do not realize the urgency of this crisis," a group of BYU researchers wrote in a study on the lake's decline, which was led by BYU ecologist Benjamin Abbott.

"Examples from around the world show that saline lake loss triggers a long-term cycle of environmental, health, and economic suffering."

"Without a coordinated rescue, we can expect widespread air and water pollution, numerous Endangered Species Act listings, and declines in agriculture, industry, and overall quality of life," it continued.

"The lake's North Arm is a warning of what the future could hold unless streamflow is restored. Cut off by a railroad causeway in 1959, the North Arm receives almost no surface runoff."

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Great Salt Lake
Source: Getty Images

The Great Salt Lake is releasing toxic dust.

As the Great Salt Lake's water levels continue receding, a major public health issue is on the rise. The drought is exposing lakebeds that, over time, have collected toxic particles from mining, agriculture, runoff, and air pollution, according to Esquire. Heavy metals and pollutants such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, nickel, chromium, lead, copper, selenium, organic contaminants, and cyanotoxins are then exposed to the air we breathe, affecting humans, plants, and animals.

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Exposure to said toxins can increase cases of chronic and fatal diseases such as: reproductive problems, developmental issues, cognitive impairment, cardiovascular problems, and even cancer. It can also take a toll on agriculture, damaging crops, degrading soil quality, and triggering early snowmelt deposits.

Dried lakebeds can take a severe toll on air quality, reversing any improvement that could have been made in decades.

Salt Lake Drought
Source: Getty Images
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New study shows the Great Salt Lake is on the brink of collapsing.

A study conducted by BYU researchers warns continuous droughts in the Great Salt Lake could take a toll on Salt Lake City's public health, environment, and economy, calling it a "keystone ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere." Providing minerals for many industries, habitats for birds, fertilizer for farms, and brine shrimp, it's a truly iconic body of water. But drought and excessive water usage is sadly leading to its destruction.

About 73 percent of the Great Salt Lake's water has been lost — habitats are on the brink of destruction, the previously mentioned toxic dust is being exposed, and the lake's salinity has increase to the point of eliminating entire ecosystems.

The research teams provided recommendations for emergency measures, to hopefully improve the state of the ecosystem for the next several years — the lake needs increased acreage, water conservation, new legislation, and help from the government.

With more effort, researchers say there is still time to save the Great Salt Lake, but without the attention it deserves, it could collapse within our lifetime. And the widespread effects would be absolutely dire.

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