Photo by Erin Lewis, UPR
Photo by Erin Lewis, UPR

The Friends of Merrill-Crazier Library hosted David Parrott, associate professor of biology at Westminster University and assistant director of Great Salt Lake Institute, as their spring 2024 speaker. Parrott’s research focuses on plants growing on the shores of Great Salt Lake, and the microbes growing around their roots.

Parrot’s talk at Utah State University focused on the impacts of climate change on Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem.

“Overall air temperature is rising. And what this does is actually increase the probability of precipitation. But the probability of precipitation is offset by the amount of evaporation that we're going to see," Parrott said. "And the bummer about the precipitation increase is that it's coming in the form of rain rather than snow.”

The ecosystems in Utah rely heavily on a slow release of water from snowpack that builds up throughout the winter. Less snowpack overall leads to less moisture to the lake, particularly in the summer months. Water levels in the lake directly affect salinity. The species inhabiting Great Salt Lake rely heavily on salinity levels staying under 12%.

Great Salt Lake is essentially cut in half by a railroad causeway. In the south arm, migratory birds rely heavily on consumption of brine shrimp and brine flies, which feed on algae and microbial mats. Researchers have found severe stress responses as a result of increased salinity, in both brine shrimp and microbial mats, impacting their life cycles and greatly disrupting the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

The north arm has 30% salinity, which has greatly reduced biodiversity.

“The two things that survive in there are a certain kind of bacteria-like organism called an archaea. It's an extremophile. And it's an extreme halophile, meaning that it loves super extreme salt, and a salt loving algae,” Parrott explained.

Parrott emphasized that what we see in the north arm is a good example of what could happen in the rest of the lake. While the topic of water flow to Great Salt Lake remains of high importance throughout the state, one or two years of good snowpack is unlikely to change larger trends of rising temperatures and its effects on the lake.

Take a look at real-time updates on Great Salt Lake’s elevation:

Utah Public Radio Reporter
Erin Lewis is a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a PhD Candidate in the biology department at Utah State University. She is passionate about fostering curiosity and communicating science to the public. At USU she studies how anthropogenic disturbances are impacting wildlife, particularly the effects of tourism-induced dietary shifts in endangered Bahamian Rock Iguana populations. In her free time she enjoys reading, painting and getting outside with her dog, Hazel.

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