Climate Action

The Great Salt Lake is getting a little less great - here’s why

Clouds are reflected in the drought affected Great Salt Lake outside Salt Lake City, Utah, US.

The Great Salt Lake is shrinking. Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Water levels at the Great Salt Lake in the United States have dropped over 6 metres since 1985.
  • Population growth and climate change are shrinking the lake, according to NASA.
  • The Great Salt Lake is worth an estimated $1.5 billion to Utah’s economy and supports millions of migratory birds.

America’s Great Salt Lake in Utah is well-named.

It’s the biggest salt water lake in the western hemisphere and is prized for its stunning views.

But climate change and population growth are making the Great Salt Lake a bit less great – at least in size.

Satellite images of the Great Salt Lake in 1985 and 2022.
Satellite images show how the Great Salt Lake in the US has dropped almost 7 metres between 1985 and 2022. Image: NASA

The Great Salt Lake by satellite

New pictures from NASA show how the lake has been shrinking since the mid-1980s.

When the Great Salt Lake was at its highest recorded level in 1986, the average water height was 1,283.7 metres.

Satellite image of the Great Salt Lake in 1985.
The Great Salt Lake in June 1985. Image: NASA

Since then, the lake has dropped about 6.7 metres, and hit a new record low on 3 July 2022 of 1,277.1 metres. A further fall took the water level to 1,276.9 metres by 10 August.

Satellite image of the Great Salt Lake in 2022.
The Great Salt Lake in July 2022. Image: NASA

“Though water levels in the Great Salt Lake can fluctuate by year, they have generally been declining for decades,” NASA’s Earth Observatory says.

The impact of population growth and climate change

Between 1982 and 2022, the population around Salt Lake City in Utah has grown from 700,000 to 1.2 million and more water has been drawn from the area for housing and agriculture.

Climate change and the warming it brings also means water from the atmosphere is falling more as rain instead of snow.

“Snow is better for the lake because it gets stored in the mountains and released slowly,” explained biologist Bonnie Baxter.

Chart showing lake elevation of the Great Salt Lake.
The Great Salt Lake has dropped about 6.7 metres since 1985. Image: NASA

Exposing the Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake could have managed “a few years of drought” until recently, Baxter said. But now, it is in no fit state to “effectively handle the pressures of climate change,” she added.

Since 1850, water inflows to the Great Salt Lake have fallen almost 40% because of people’s use of the water, researchers at Utah State University estimates.

NASA says white fringes around the edge of the lake show where there are newly exposed parts of the lakebed. Different water depths and concentrations of sediment, salt, bacteria, and algae also show as different colours.

Chart showing lake elevation of the Great Salt Lake.
Water levels at the Great Salt Lake have been declining for decades, NASA says. Image: NASA

A valuable economic and natural asset

The Great Salt Lake contributes an estimated $1.5 billion to Utah’s economy and supports brine shrimp and salt harvesting operations, magnesium mining and recreational activities, NASA says.

The lake’s shallow waters also sustain “millions of migratory birds”.

Infographic showing the nutrient cycle of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
The nutrient cycle of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Image: State of Utah

A separate report from the European Space Agency (ESA) said the falling waters of the Great Salt Lake could have “devastating consequences” for northern Utah’s economy, ecology and people.

As the lake shrinks, it becomes saltier – this “endangers flies and brine shrimp which millions of birds rely on for food,” the ESA explains.

Drying of the lakebed also jeopardizes human health by releasing dust into the air that is “laced with copper, arsenic and other dangerous heavy metals” from the residue of mining activity, it says.

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