WSU professor, students research Great Salt Lake’s threatened ecosystem

OGDEN, Utah – Carie Frantz, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Weber State University, is leading students in researching the impact of climate change, drought and ecosystem change at the Great Salt Lake.

As the lake faces the threat of drying, their work is more important than ever.

For the past two summers, Frantz has led the GETUP Summer Research Experience, which gives underrepresented students in the geosciences the chance to become full-time research assistants for four weeks.

The WSU students work with Frantz at Antelope Island to collect samples and use high-tech equipment to analyze them. At the end of the program, the students will present their results at a research symposium. Some will serve as peer mentors in the GETUP Summer Bridge Program, a hands-on learning program for first-generation or low-income students interested in geoscience and environmental science who plan to attend Weber State.

“We’ve really entered uncharted territory in terms of lake level and salinity,” Frantz said. “It’s at a really scary tipping point right now, and we don’t know what’s going to happen.” 

Frantz and the students are studying microbialites, rock structures that house photosynthetic microorganisms that are an important food source for other organisms in the lake. As the lake dries and more microbialites are exposed to the air, the organisms on the rocks no longer contribute to the lake’s food chain, impacting brine shrimp, birds and other animals. Since 2012, Frantz said more than half of the microbialites in the lake have been exposed.

Along with the lake’s animals, the changes could impact humans, too.

Frantz’s biggest fear: “Anytime the wind blows, we’ll be in a toxic dust soup.”

Strong winds can kick dust from dry lake sediments into the air. This summer, Frantz said Utahns should expect particulate matter pollution, usually only seen during winter inversions and wildfires, and that the dust may contain high concentrations of metals, including high levels of arsenic.

The drop in the lake’s water level can be attributed to a current megadrought gripping the southwestern United States, global climate change, and overuse of water that would otherwise feed the lake. To combat the problem, Frantz strongly encourages all Wasatch Front residents and organizations to take part in water conservation efforts. 

WSU has reduced its total water use per acre by 40.3% compared to a 2016–2018 average baseline, while the land area has grown by 265,699 square feet from the baseline years.

While researching the issues surrounding the lake’s water levels, GETUP students gain first-hand experience in making a difference with their research.

“Learning about the mineralization phases interests me, but also looking at the factors, the brine shrimp and the brine flies, and seeing how the drying of the lake directly affects those organisms as well,” said Maggie Nguyen, GETUP participant and geology major at WSU. 

After graduation, Nguyen plans to start a career in hydrology. “Monitoring and researching the Great Salt Lake water levels directly ties into that,” she said.

The students’ research symposium will take place from 5–6 p.m. Aug. 5 at Tracy Hall, Room 102, located at the WSU Ogden campus. The event is open to the public.

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Visit weber.edu/wsutoday for more news about Weber State University. 

Contact:

Bryan Magaña, Public Relations director
801-626-7948 • bryanmagana@weber.edu

Author:

Jaime Winston, Marketing & Communications
801-626-7396 • jaimewinston@weber.edu