Westminster Scientists Warn Great Salt Lake is Disappearing in New Book

Book edited by Bonnie Baxter, Ph.D., and Jaimi Butler titled “Great Salt Lake Biology: A Terminal Lake in a Time of Change”

September 30, 2020

A top Utah tourist attraction — refuge to millions of migrating birds and home to unique salt-tolerant life — is disappearing. Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, and a new book by Westminster scientists reveals the enormous lake is in critical danger.

In the book “Great Salt Lake Biology: A Terminal Lake in a Time of Change,” Westminster professors and students write that the lake has shrunk dramatically in recent years, endangering the animals that live in its water and on its shores and islands. The book was edited by Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute director, Bonnie Baxter, Ph.D., and institute coordinator Jaimi Butler. Three more Westminster professors and seven students, who are now alumni, contributed chapters and illustrations to the text.

Kara Kornhauser studied the tar seeps that line one shore of the lake before she graduated with a degree in environmental science. She co-wrote a chapter about the tar seeps, which reveals that the shrinking lake exposes more of the seeps that entrap and kill birds and other wildlife.

“This project made me believe I could be a scientist and helped me get into graduate school,” Kornhauser said. “I hope readers will learn something that excites them about the lake. I hope it inspires them to protect it so that others can continue working to solve its mysteries.”

Baxter and Butler wrote a chapter on the shrinking lake’s impact to climate change in the local region, the first examination of its kind. Losing Great Salt Lake could be devastating to local communities.

“As the lake loses water, the shorelines are more exposed. This dust — laden with toxins humans put there — becomes airborne, affecting air quality,” Baxter said. “But the dust also lands on the snow of our mountains, which absorbs the heat of the sun and melts it more quickly, affecting both the ski industry and the recharge of our water supply.”

“Great Salt Lake is a huge deal,” said Butler. “So many species rely on this water body, and it impacts over a billion dollars in Utah’s economy.”

While the lake is already shrinking, Utah is only beginning to see the impacts of climate change. Those impacts will worsen as the lake gets smaller, according to Butler.

“This book is a call-to-action for Utah’s residents and legislative body,” Butler said. “The biggest threat to the lake is water. It takes every person to conserve water and advocate for smart water laws.”

“Great Salt Lake Biology: A Terminal Lake in a Time of Change” contains chapters written by various experts in academia, industry professionals, government and nonprofit. It was published as part of the internationally respected Springer Nature Series. Find purchasing information and more about the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College: www.westminstercollege.edu/gsli.