The Bonneville Salt Flats is shrinking, and has been for years

Nov 3, 2022, 4:10 PM
bonneville salt...
An aerial view of the Bonneville Salt Flats on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (Scott Taylor)
(Scott Taylor)

SALT LAKE CITY — The Great Salt Lake isn’t the only salty body that’s shrinking in Utah, the Bonneville Salt Flats are, too.

And this is affecting at least two groups of people — racers, and people that live nearby.

“As it goes away, you start to expose the dust that’s underneath (the flats),” said Bill Keach, State Geologist and Director of the Utah Geological Survey. “And you can start to create airborne particulates from the dust coming off the salt flat.”

The salt flat is west of the Great Salt Lake on the border of Utah and Nevada. According to the Utah Geological Survey, it formed as Lake Bonneville evaporated. 

It is adeptly named. The Bonneville Salt Flat is considered one of the flattest areas on earth. That’s one of the reasons auto racers started racing there in 1914. They could drive long distances with nothing in their way.

And the surface, which isn’t 100% dry, keeps tire temperatures down at high speeds.

So how are the two related? As the Great Salt Lake decreases, and the thickness of the flats decreases, the racing distance gets shorter.

Reversing the shrinking Bonneville Salt Flats?

Keach said that projects have been proposed that would manually pump salt water from beneath the flats to the surface of the flats. The idea is to add more water to the surface, which leads to evaporation, and more salt “growing.”

But Keach said a more scientific approach is needed that directs how much water to lay down, and when to lay it down.

And man’s efforts may be unnecessary.   

“You can go into Google Earth and look, in an ad hoc way, and look at the last thirty years, or forty years of imagery across the salt flat … and you see the salt flat expand and contract,” Keach said.

“They’ve been doing this historically for a long time.”

Keach believes that groundwater is the key to increasing the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Meaning, more water coming from the Silver Island Mountains.

Contributing: Simone Seikaly

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The Bonneville Salt Flats is shrinking, and has been for years