This study is designed to investigate the content and amount of the dust emissions from the GSL lakebed. It also will look at the impact of dust deposition in Utah Valley.
Sponsor: Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands
Principal Investigator: Greg Carling
The surface of the Great Salt Lake is steadily decreasing, which results in an increased amount of exposed lakebed. This means there is more potential for it to become a “dust bowl,” which is defined as an area with no plant growth and the topsoil has been reduced to dust. Unfortunately, dust bowls cause several negative effects on human health and the environment. For example, the overexposed lakebed leads to the exposure of high concentrations of metals, which is then absorbed by vegetation. Additionally, dust bowls can harm the snowpack in the mountains. The snow pack is an important drinking source for humans once it melts into streams and rivers, but the increased dust decreases water quality and cause earlier snowmelt, which in turn can cause decreased water availability and flooding. Lastly, an increase of exposed lakebed poses a higher risk for dust storms, as more loose dust particles are carried away by the wind.
Greg Carling and his team have designed a project to better understand the extent of potential harm caused by dust in Utah Valley. To execute the project, Carling will focus on four main objectives. First, they will work to establish geochemical “fingerprints,” or identifying characteristics, of the dust distribution along the Wasatch Front and different dust emissions in Utah. Next, these scientists will use these fingerprints to compare how much dust is coming from the GSL versus other sources such as the Bonneville Salt Flats, Sevier Lake Bed and Milford Flat fire scar. They will also evaluate where the dust comes from by studying dust storms. Lastly, they will analyze the dust by specifically looking at salts, nutrients and trace metals.
To execute these main objectives, the researchers will first take dust samples to analyze its content. These samples will come from four different places along the Wasatch Front (the GSL lakebed, Sevier Lake Bed, Milford Flat fire scar and Bonneville Salt Flats) during two different seasons, the Fall of 2015 and Spring of 2016. Using special equipment from both BYU and University of Utah, Carling’s team will then specifically look at the isotopic, geochemical and mineralogical composition of the dust. Some examples of trace elements looked for include calcium, copper, lead, phosphorus, sulfur, sodium, uranium and zinc. The sample results will then be combined to create a standardized dust sample, or “geochemical fingerprint,” for reference.
Next, Carling and his team will focus on learning about where the dust is being distributed along the Wasatch Front. They will do this by setting up dust collecting monitors on the campuses of BYU, University of Utah, Weber State and Utah State University. These monitoring stations are called “passive dust collectors,” and they will be examined for disturbances. Wind speed and direction, especially during storms, will also be considered in the analysis. This portion of the project will provide critical information on the origin and destination of dust and its contaminants.
Because this project will be using advanced technology and equipment, this project will yield results that are not widely available to more than a few laboratories worldwide. Therefore, not many projects of this caliber have been conducted before Carling’s project.
This project will hopefully answer questions about the significance of the Great Salt Lake as a dust source and the extent of its threat to both human and environmental health. As scientists better understand both where the dust is coming from and what the dust is exactly comprised of, they will be able to know how to better protect human health and the environment.