Article image

Restoring the Great Salt Lake is a matter of environmental justice

The Great Salt Lake in Utah is drying up, like many inland seas worldwide, due to increased human water use and accelerating climate change. As the lake shrinks, it exposes large areas of dry lakebed.

This desiccation releases harmful dust that pollutes surrounding areas during dust storms, posing serious health risks to nearby communities.

The dust problem: A growing concern

Since the mid-1980s, the Great Salt Lake has been steadily drying, exposing its lakebed to atmospheric weathering and wind.

Dust emissions from drying salt lakes produce fine particulate matter (PM2.5), linked to numerous health issues and recognized as the leading environmental cause of human mortality worldwide.

“We know that the dust from these drying lakes is very unhealthy for us, so the question becomes, what does that mean in terms of people’s exposure to the dust, and what does it mean in terms of inequalities in exposure to that dust,” said study first author and sociologist Sara Grineski of the University of Utah. “Are some people more likely to have to suffer the consequences to a greater degree?”

A multidisciplinary approach

To explore these questions, a team of sociologists, atmospheric scientists, geographers, and biologists used a model to simulate dust pollution scenarios.

The experts investigated how dust pollution would change if the lake dried further or if its levels were restored.

“The drying of lakes with no outlets, also called terminal lakes or inland seas, is a major ecological catastrophe of the twenty-first century. As lake beds dry, they become sources of fine dust that harms human health,” wrote the researchers.

“These lake beds are drying, in part due to decreased inflows of water associated with climate change, but mostly due to increasing human demands for water.”

Model simulations of dust exposure

The model predicted dust levels in three counties surrounding the lake and combined these with demographic data from the 2020 U.S. Census and American Community Survey to analyze exposure disparities.

During typical dust storms, current levels expose residents to 26 μg/m3 of dust PM2.5 on average, which is higher than the World Health Organization’s threshold of 15 μg/m3.

If the lake were to dry up completely, exposure could rise to 32 μg/m3, while restoring the lake could reduce exposure to 24 μg/m3.

Environmental justice and the Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake serves as a crucial case study, revealing significant disparities in dust exposure among different demographic groups.

Dust exposure is highest among Pacific Islanders and Hispanic people, while white people experience lower levels of exposure. Additionally, those without a high school diploma are more affected by the dust.

Restoring the lake could significantly reduce dust exposure and address these disparities, benefiting everyone in the vicinity and promoting environmental justice.

“People here in Utah are concerned about the lake for a variety of reasons – the ski industry, the brine shrimp, the migratory birds, recreation – and this study adds environmental justice and the equity implications of the drying lake to the conversation,” noted Grineski.

“If we can raise the levels of the lake via some coordinated policy responses, we can reduce our exposure to dust, which is good for everyone’s health, and we can also reduce the disparity between groups.”

Restoration of the Great Salt Lake

Future research aims to explore how changes in the region’s population size and composition might affect dust exposure from the lake. The ultimate goal is to guide local policymakers in prioritizing the restoration of the Great Salt Lake.

“If we were to enact policy and conservation measures to raise the lake, we would benefit not only in terms of decreased dust, but in terms of less dramatic disparities between who is breathing in more of this dust,” explained Grineski.

“It’s important to consider the environmental justice implications of different choices that we might make in the policy arena when we think about different strategies for adaptation and mitigation to climate change.”

Restoring the Great Salt Lake stands as a vital step toward achieving both environmental justice and ecological balance, ensuring a healthier future for all residents in the region.

The study is published in the journal One Earth.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day