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Antelope Island on life support due to shrinking Great Salt Lake, experts say

By Dan Spindle - KSLTV.com | Nov 22, 2022
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The dry bed of the Great Salt Lake near Antelope Island is photographed April 23, 2022.
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Great Salt Lake Collaborative

Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

DAVIS COUNTY, Utah — It’s supposed to be surrounded by water, but right now, Antelope Island as we know it is on life support — suffering from the shrinking Great Salt Lake.

These days, the trek is never easy to get out to the edge of the water.

“I always dread it,” said Carie Frantz, an associate professor of geobiology and geochemistry at Weber State University.

Frantz showed KSL TV’s Dan Spindle how she has to carry all of her research equipment in a waterproof pack. A journey that, just months ago, would have been made wading through the shallow depths, not walking along a seemingly rocky shoreline that’s ever-increasing.

“I love taking people out to see the lake because it’s such a beautiful place even now that it’s dying. It’s still just this stunningly, this quiet, beautiful space,” she said.

Frantz has come to appreciate these saline waters over the last several years. She enjoys monthly journeys to the northern shores of Antelope Island, which has truly become a desert island, with emphasis on the desert, as water levels hit all-time lows again, making it an island in name only during this megadrought.

Samuel Ramsey has spent even more time out here.

“It’s like a little biosphere,” Ramsey said.

He’s a Utah transplant from a quarter century ago, spending most weekdays hiking five to 10 miles around this rough end of the island. It doesn’t seem to be home to anything other than the long-time residents that don’t like visitors like us disturbing their day-to-day routine.

“This area, for the casual observer, doesn’t seem like much other than the bison herd,” Ramsey said.

Frantz and Ramsey have one thing in common — they’re concerned that the recent, drastic changes to the lake will be irreversible.

“This area has gone from just some of the tips of some of these microbialites that you see sticking out of the surface like this much to this huge expanse that’s all bleached out and dying,” Frantz explained.

Bleaching is one problem. But another color is just as concerning.

Salty, pink pools are what’s left behind of what was a thriving, vibrant biological landscape. And as recently as, not years ago but just months ago, all of this was covered in water — and this landscape needs that blanket of water for protection.

“These are structures that are built by microorganisms that live in the lake,” Frantz said.

Microbialite mounds make for a dusty, sandy, somewhat solid surface of a rock or at least familiar-looking geologic formations. But that’s the true deception of this dead sea. It’s anything but.

“That’s alive. This here is alive,” Frantz explained, showing a microbialite mound.

She takes samples from these gray mounds that are teeming with life and photosynthetic activity, green proof of a living ecosystem just centimeters beneath the surface.

“Every month I come out here, I characterize the lake and take samples of the microbialites to see how healthy they are,” Frantz said.

She’ll segment and measure pigments of this biological matter back in the lab. But the bigger question for this shrinking but still massive body of water: How salty can it get, and for how long before life on the lake is choked out of existence?

The ocean, for context, is about 3.5% salinity. The Great Salt Lake would thrive between 5% and 15% salinity.

Recent samples from White Rock Bay? Well over 18%, meaning life cannot survive at this level of salinity.

“We’re at this point where we can’t wait any longer. We can’t let the lake continue dropping without seeing some really severe consequences,” Frantz expressed.

Conservation efforts are in place, and the legislature is passing new laws to protect the lake and get water flowing from our mountains to the basin. But whether or not it’s enough to save these mounds that were made of the building blocks of life billions of years ago is something only time and a whole lot more water will tell.

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