U of U geologists conduct study to determine cause of diminishing Salt Flats

TOOELE COUNTY, Utah - A new study hopes to find out why the salt surface on the Bonneville Salt Flats is disappearing.

The flats were made famous by land-speed racing in the early 1900s. However, thin levels of salt over the past three years canceled Bonneville Speed Week for two straight years until recently.

"People want to understand if it's changing, how it changing, why it’s changing and what's driving those changes so we can make decisions to sustain for generations to come," said professor Brenda Bowen, a geologist and geophysicist at the University of Utah.

Bowen took media on a tour of the flats showing them testing equipment being used in a new study in hopes to answer those questions.

"We have a rig that pushes its way down through the crust," Bowen said.

The professor said the study is performed every 15 years.

The study hopes to resolve a current and conflicting debate over whether Mother Nature is responsible for the shrinking amounts of salt or if a nearby potash factory, owned by Intrepid, is to blame.

"As part of the lease with the potash mine, they are required to contract a third party to come in and measure the thickness of salt crust and assess how it's been changing," she said.

If too much rain saturates the surface, salt is diluted and its growth stunted. On the other hand, the factory may be absorbing the brine water underneath the salt, thus diminishing its ability to grow from below.

"We do know the history of land use out here has impacted it," Bowen confirmed. "Even putting in I-80 and the railroad contributed."

Bowen's team will drill 70 holes for testing over the span of a week, analyzing the composition makeup of the sediment below.

She said it will take her team over a year to know the exact implications of the data collected this week.

After that, she says she will conduct her own five-year study, recently granted to her by the National Science Foundation, to continue her research.