The Great Salt Lake could disappear within 5 years, scientists warn: ScienceAlert

The Great Salt Lake could disappear within 5 years, scientists warn: ScienceAlert

The Great Salt Lake could disappear within 5 years, scientists warn: ScienceAlert

If nothing is done to conserve water in Utah immediately, US scientists say the Great Salt Lake as we know it will disappear within just five years.

At this point, to reverse the decline, enough water to cover more than 2.5 million acres of land (more than 10,000 square kilometers) one foot deep must return to the lake each year.

To put that into perspective, a single acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons (over 1.2 million liters) of water.

Today, only about 0.1 million acre-feet of water are returned to Utah’s famous lake each year, and that’s not even close to being enough.

Since 2020, the lake has lost over one million acre-feet of water per year.

Algae bloom produces red colored water in the Great Salt Lake
Utah’s Great Salt Lake in 2019. (NASA Johnson/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To pull the ecosystem back from the brink, research by scientists from Brigham Young University (BYU) has found that water consumption in the region needs to be reduced by at least a third, if not half.

“Despite encouraging growth in legislative action and public awareness, most Utahns do not realize the urgency of this crisis,” the researchers write in a comprehensive briefing on the issue, led by the BYU environmentalist Benjamin Abbott.

“Examples from around the world show that the loss of a salt lake triggers a long-term cycle of environmental, health and economic suffering. Without a coordinated rescue, we can expect widespread air and water pollution. water, numerous Endangered Species Act listings, and a decline in agriculture, industry, and overall quality of life.”

The report calls on the governor of Salt Lake City to immediately put in place a watershed-wide emergency rescue of the metropolis’ namesake.

The Great Salt Lake is not only home to important flora and fauna, but it also protects air quality, removes water pollution, and moderates local weather conditions, such as snowfall in nearby mountains.

The Great Salt Lake seen from space
The Great Salt Lake and its watershed seen from the International Space Station. (Alexandre Gerst/Twitter)

However, recent research suggests that the ecosystem is reaching a dangerous tipping point. As millions of gallons of water are diverted from the lake each year, salinity levels have begun to rise. Salt concentrations are now so high that flora and fauna are struggling to survive.

In some areas, like the north arm of the lake, the result turned the body of water pink, triggered by a massive die-off of photosynthetic microbes.

“The North Arm of the lake is a warning of what the future may hold unless flow is restored. Cut off by a railway line in 1959, the North Arm receives almost no surface runoff,” the briefing explains.

“Lack of freshwater flow caused salinity to reach saturation, killing microbialites and algae that form the base of the lake’s food web. Disturbed lake circulation temporarily caused the highest methylmercury levels from the country.”

As a lake bed dries up, it may release embedded arsenic, Mercury, lead, copper, organic contaminants and cyanotoxins in the air via dust particles. The dust released by the dry lake can also damage crops, degrade soils and cause premature snowmelt.

In California, when a salt lake similar to that in Utah dried up due to human activity, local residents suffered from asthma and cardiovascular problems at a much higher rate than before.

Unfortunately, the average Utah water consumer can’t do much to help. They can remove their sprinklers, avoid water-hungry plants in their garden, and advocate for better environmental policies at the state and federal levels. But the water they use in their homes is almost always treated and reused.

Water diverted from the Great Salt Lake and its watershed — which spans some 23 million acres — is used primarily for industrial agriculture. Three-quarters of water consumption in the lake catchment area is currently for crop irrigation, with mineral extraction absorbing a further 9%.

Reducing farmers’ reliance on irrigation is the best and perhaps the only way to save the lake, but it will require systematic political and societal changes in Utah and surrounding states.

If coordinated action does not take place in the first half of this year, the researchers warn that there will be catastrophic consequences.

“Dealing with this crisis will require conservation measures unprecedented in living memory,” the researchers write.

“Reversing the collapse of the Great Salt Lake system is perhaps the greatest challenge we have faced in our state’s history. However, history shows that our community is capable of this kind of collective action. bold.

“For example, our aboriginal and pioneer predecessors adapted to the natural variability of weather and climate that would have extinguished most civilizations.

“More recently, when excessive withdrawals caused Lake Utah to dry up in 1934 and 1935, emergency infrastructure and water policy changes were made that allowed the lake to refill.”

Utahns can do it. It is not too late.

The full report can be viewed online at the Brigham Young University website.

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