The salt lakes of the American West turn to dust

11 months ago
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This story was originally appeared on high country news and is part climate table cooperation.

Last summer, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discovered dust. blowing 85 miles from its source, Lake Abert and Summer Lake, two dry salt lakes in southern Oregon. This has happened before: the bottom of the salt lakes is one of the most significant sources of dust in the West. California’s Lake Owens is the nation’s largest source of PM10, tiny pollutants found in dust and smoke, while plumes plucking from the 800 square miles of exposed floor of the Great Salt Lake have triggered toxin-filled dust storms in Salt Lake City.

Salt lakes are rapidly losing water due to climate change, agricultural and urban needs, becoming one of the most threatened ecosystems in the West. Now the new legislation offers some support. On December 27, President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan Salt lake ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act, which provides $25 million for research and monitoring of salt lakes in the Great Basin. While this funding is an important step, it cannot give the lakes what they really need: more water.

The Inner West is full of salt lakes formed by melting snow at the bottom of the valley in the region of the basin and ridge. Valleys have no outflow, so water remains until it evaporates, leaving particles suspended in it. They accumulate over time, giving the lakes high salinity.

“This creates a unique system that supports brine shrimp and alkaline flies, which can feed incredible populations of migratory birds,” said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, which is committed to conserving the Oregon High Desert, including Summer Lake and Lake Abert. .

However, this balance of runoff, salts and evaporation also makes the salt lakes very sensitive to climate change. Decreased snow cover and increased evaporation due to warmer temperatures means lakes have less water and higher salt concentrations. This stresses the shrimp and flies, which have adapted to the particular salinity over time, and also exposes the dried lake bed, creating dangerous dust storms.

Decades of diversion for agricultural and municipal purposes have also taken water from the lakes. California’s Lake Owens, for example, has dried up nearly completely for nearly a century since its water was diverted to Los Angeles. AND report published this month Scientists and conservation organizations in Utah have warned that a combination of water diversion and climate change could see the Great Salt Lake disappear within five years.

Many see poor air quality as the main reason for saving the lakes. But dust is a sign that the entire ecosystem is withering. Salt lakes are key stops on the Pacific Flyway, a bird migration route that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia, Chile. “The fact that we’re worried about dust tells me we’re already past the point where Lake Abert will be lost as part of the Pacific Flyway, its most important environmental value,” Houston said. More than 80 species of birds inhabit or migrate across Lake Abert, and 338 species depend on the Great Salt Lake.

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