How are Utah's dry lakes impacting air quality and human health?

December 10, 2019

The Great Salt Lake reached historic low levels in recent years and continues to dry as a result of drought and water diversions. As water levels decrease, the exposed area of dry lakebed increases, creating major sources of mineral dust. Declining water levels are a major concern for scientists and the general public alike, but air quality is often overlooked as one of the potentially harmful consequences of receding lakes.

New research from BYU's geological sciences department found that about 90 percent of dust in Utah's Wasatch Front comes from the west desert, an area that was once covered by the prehistoric Lake Bonneville but that is now a dried lakebed. More recently, shallow lakes like Sevier Dry Lake and the Great Salt Lake, which are remnants of Lake Bonneville, have been exposed as water inflows are diverted for consumptive use. Researchers predict this percentage is only going to increase as water levels decline and more dry lakebed is exposed.

"Lakebeds are muddy, but as they dry out, they become a dust pan," said study co-author and former BYU graduate student Michael Goodman. "Dry lake beds are becoming a significant dust threat to nearby communities, not only impacting air quality but also impacting soil and what can grow in it."

Researchers collected and compared over 100 dust samples from three different sources: dried lakebeds from Sevier Lake and the Great Salt Lake in Utah's west desert, urban areas along the Wasatch Front and mountain snowpack from the Uintah Mountains. The team found salts common to dried lakebeds in the urban and mountain areas, suggesting that dust from dried lakebeds is transferred to these other locations.

While most dust along the Wasatch Front comes from drying lakebeds, researchers said that the most dangerous contaminants are still coming from urban areas.

"The dust we sampled contained potentially toxic metals, and those come primarily from the urban and mining areas," said BYU geology professor and co-author Greg Carling. "Even though the urban and mining area contributes only a small fraction of the dust load, it contains the most contaminants, such as antimony and copper."

Carling said whether it's the drying up of lakes or the emission of dangerous chemicals, our actions often have unintended consequences that may negatively affect the environment. The team also acknowledges that further knowledge of dust sources may be useful for understanding how water diversions, climate change and population growth affect the regional dust cycle in the future.

"Most people probably wouldn't think that something out in the west desert has a direct impact on the Wasatch Front," Carling said. "But we have to consider that there are consequences for our actions, many of which are indirect." Researchers also said dust should be considered an important factor in poor air quality and human health, and the amount of dust blown into urban areas could be lowered through preserving lakes.
Funding for the research came from the National Science Foundation and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands. The study, published in Chemical Geology, is co-authored by BYU geology professors Barry Bickmore and Stephen Nelson, as well as former student Colin Hale. Diego Fernandez, a professor from the University of Utah, and Jeffrey Munroe, from Middlebury College, also assisted with the research.

Brigham Young University

Related Air Quality Articles from Brightsurf:

COVID-19: Air quality influences the pandemic
An interdisciplinary team from the University of Geneva and the ETH Z├╝rich spin-off Meteodat investigated possible interactions between acutely elevated levels of fine particulate matter and the virulence of the coronavirus disease.

COVID-19 shutdown effect on air quality mixed
In April 2020, as remote work and social distancing policies were in place in Delaware and a number of other states, there was a sense the skies were clearer and less polluted with fewer people on the road.

School absences correlate to impaired air quality
In Salt Lake City schools, absences rise when the air quality worsens, and it's not just in times of high pollution or ''red'' air quality days--even days following lower levels of pollutions saw increased absences.

Unexpected wildfire emission impacts air quality worldwide
During wildfires, nitrous acid plays a leading role--spiking to levels significantly higher than scientists expected, driving increased ozone pollution and harming air quality, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder and the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy.

Evergreen needles act as air quality monitors
Every tree, even an evergreen, can be an air quality monitor.

Research brief: New insight on the impacts of Earth's biosphere on air quality
A new study provides the first global satellite measurements of one of the most important chemicals affecting Earth's atmosphere.

Extending the coverage of PM2.5 monitoring to help improve air quality
A team of researchers in China has improved the method to obtain mass concentrations of particulate matter from widely measured humidity and visibility data.

Air quality impacts early brain development
Does living close to roadways pose a risk to the developing brain?

COVID-19 lockdowns significantly impacting global air quality
Levels of two major air pollutants have been drastically reduced since lockdowns began in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a secondary pollutant -- ground-level ozone -- has increased in China, according to new research.

Can poor air quality make you gain weight?
A new study links air pollution to changes in the human gut microbiome which could fuel diabetes, obesity and inflammatory bowel diseases like colitis and Crohn's disease.

Read More: Air Quality News and Air Quality Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to