Dusty conditions at Great Salt Lake could impact air, water quality along Wasatch Front

SALT LAKE – Dry lakebed conditions at the Great Salt Lake have the potential to dramatically affect air and water quality along the Wasatch Front.

It can travel hundreds of miles and affect everything from our air to our water, and ultimately our health.

Dust is the culprit, and new research from BYU suggests that paying attention to dusty conditions may be more important than you might think.

“So it seems kind of funny to study dust, like most people think of dust on their keyboard or something,” said Greg Carling.

Greg Carling, an assistant professor of geological sciences at BYU, has been dedicated to dust for the last decade.

“And so one of the major concerns is just the fine particles, we breathe them in, can cause potential health effects, gets deep into our lungs,” he said.

Professor Carling and his students collect dust samples all over Utah. They're able to fingerprint the dust to see where it's coming from and what it’s made of.

“What we do in my lab is we're interested in: What are the concentration of heavy metals, like mercury or lead?” Carling said.

He says as far as the Wasatch Front is concerned, the most concerning dust comes from hundreds of miles of dry lakebed at the Great Salt Lake. It contains fine particulate matter that can contribute to poor air quality during a dust storm or high winds.

The problem isn't just that the dust can get airborne, scientists like professor Carling are concerned with where it lands.

“So one of the major things is that dust, because it’s fairly dark, makes a dark surface on the snowpack that can cause the snowpack to melt out earlier,” Carling said.

Dust doesn’t just land on the snow and make it melt faster. All that it’s made of--particulate matter, mercury, and other metals--can get into our water supply. Professor Carling and his students use the lab to measure the concentrations of metals in the dust. The findings are being looked at by the state.

Proposals to divert more fresh water from flowing into the Great Salt Lake are being considered in order to provide more fresh water to other areas. But their research shows that less water at the Great Salt Lake could mean more dangerous dust, and less clean water for everyone.

“If we don't allow water to go to the lake it's potentially, the Great Salt Lake could potentially be, you know, a giant dust source and could create huge problems,” Carling said.