Great Salt Lake

Great Salt Lake

In the northwestern part of the U.S. mountainous state of Utah, which sprawls in the Rocky Mountains in the west, is the largest drainless area in North America: local lakes receive only water from surrounding rivers and precipitation, but no outlet to the sea. This vast – more than 500,000 km2 – area is called the Great Basin.

History of the lake

Apparently, this name has preserved the memory of the region’s distant past, when about 15-20 thousand years ago most of this area was really covered by water – there were two large lakes. One was the Pleistocene Bonneville. This lake began to dry up due to climate change. Just a relic (remnant) of this deep (up to 300 m) lake is the Great Salt Lake.

Now on the vast, still in the process of stretching and breaking, crossed by many short (up to 3,900 m. high) ridges, deserts and semi-deserts are spread out, and against their background stands out a strange, but still water body – the Great Saline Lake. Its basin follows the structure of the relief of the Rocky Mountains surrounding the lake, so it takes an elongated form from southeast to northwest. It is a deep graben (section of earth crust lowered relative to the surrounding area along the path of steep or vertical tectonic faults) with a thick thickness of the Quaternary deposits (lasting since 2.6 million years ago). The other, more western part of the drying Bonneville became the Great Salt Lake Desert with white sand from the high salt content.

The largest inland lake in the western United States and the largest salt lake in North America lives up to its name: although its size constantly varies depending on precipitation, its water surface area has recently ranged from 4,500 to 5,000 km2. The lake is indeed extremely salty because it has no runoff, with three major rivers draining into it from the neighboring Wasatch Range: salinity levels as high as 300%o, making it one of the most salty lakes on Earth.

The surrounding landscape is harsh: cliffs, salty desert, and dust. It is very hot in summer, and it is the aridity of the region that causes the water coming from rivers and with precipitation to evaporate rapidly, and the salt concentrates in its residues and on the shores. Temperatures drop considerably in the winter, and in the fall the air is filled with mosquitoes that flock to the unused irrigation water draining into the lake.

The water of the lake often has a rich turquoise hue. In its density, it is more like a jelly-like structure, which makes the usual waves impossible. On the north and east sides, the lake transitions to the salt and freshwater marshlands, which make up about 75 percent of Utah’s wetlands. Life is already buzzing here, with millions of waterfowl and waterbirds migrating into the region. Ironically, they have plenty to eat, as this part of the lake is home to some species of seaweed, shrimp, and salt flies, a population of over a hundred billion. The rugged land stretches 1,280 meters above sea level, and for a long time the white settlers of the New World were only vaguely aware of its existence by the rumors they heard about a huge salt lake that seemed to exist in the western mountains.

The American pioneers listened to local legends and began to gather information about the strange place. At first the idea arose that the lake was part of the Pacific Ocean, or at least connected to it by some river. Indian myths explained the unusual salinity of the lake in their own way: it was believed that it was uninhabited because a monster with a huge head already lived in it.

But as time passed, such speculations became less and less satisfactory to the settlers’ growing and evolving civilization. In 1776, Franciscan missionary and the first European explorer of the Utah Territory, Belej Silvestre de Escalante (1750-1780), joined by his brother Francisco Atanasio Dominguez (1740-1803/1805) and seven other daring men, led by a surveyor, mounted an expedition during which, advancing eastward, they hoped to reach the lands of present-day California, where the Spanish religious mission was already present. Along the way, the travelers sought to chart a new route linking different ends of the country. It was then that the first true facts about the lake were obtained, and the travelers were led to the body of water by the Indians they encountered, who reported that they lived “in the west, by the great water.

Another journey to the lake was made by the fur trader James Bridger (1804-1881). He is believed to have given the lake its present name in 1825. By the 1840s, through the efforts of intrepid pioneers, Utah had become a transit region, with more expeditions and simple settlers seeking their fortunes in California following the well-trodden path.

Scientific interest in the lake was taken in 1843 by John Fremont (1813-1890): the members of his team finally mapped the exact location of the lake and discovered that the body of water had several islands, the largest of which, Antelope Island, was inhabited by the Shoshone Indians.

It was with the Shoshone that Brigham Young (1801-77), who took a fancy to the Great Salt Lake Valley for a new Mormon settlement, first tried to establish good neighborly relations. The second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this promoter of Mormon settlement appreciated the desolation of the territory: for his persecuted flock it was just the right thing to do. The Shoshone were wary of the settlers, for their wagons frightened away game and threatened to leave the original inhabitants of the land hungry. Subsequently, as elsewhere in the Americas, there were numerous conflicts between newcomers and Indians.

But in 1847 Young succeeded in establishing the first Mormon settlement on the shores of the lake, which would later grow into the capital city of Utah, Salt Lake City. It was conceived as the embodiment of the ideal city, the “City of Zion” (Zion – a hill in Jerusalem, the symbol of the Promised Land), a gathering place for Latter-day saints. It became an important staging post where immigrants on their way to California could gather strength. The development of transportation turned the city into a major commercial center in the west. The railroad since 1959 runs along the lake – on a special dam about 40 km long, which divides it into parts with different salinity.

The study of the island continues. It has from 8 to 11 islands, which depends on the water level. Since 1916 the industrial use of salt reserves began. About 20,000,000 tons of salt enter the lake each year. Extraction is made by pumping water from the northern part of the lake into evaporation basins, where the water is finally withdrawn. The Great Salt Lake Mineral and Chemical Corporation is in charge of this operation. And the artificial irrigation canals laid by city residents have allowed the surrounding area to be used for agriculture and have made the surrounding landscape much more lively and attractive.

General Information

  • State: Utah.
  • Largest inflowing rivers: Bear, Uber, Jordan.
  • Largest cities: Salt Lake City, Ogden.
  • Area: 2,500 to 6,000 km2.
  • Average depth: 4.5 to 7.5 m.
  • Maximum depth: 13 to 15 m.
  • Brine salinity in the northern part: 334-345 g/l.
  • Brine salinity in southern part: from 130 to 280 g/l.
  • Subsurface runoff brings 60 times more salts into the lake than surface runoff.


  • Industry: extraction of table and glauber salt (about 8 thousand tons a year), an enterprise producing lithium and bromine.
  • Services: tourism.

Climate and weather

  • Arid: dry, characterized by very high temperatures combined with large daily fluctuations. Windy.
  • Average temperature in January: -1.4°C.
  • Average temperature in July: +25.9°C.
  • Average annual precipitation: up to 413 mm.


  • Lake – UNESCO World Heritage Site; Bonneville Lake salt fields.
  • Antelope Island: state natural park.

Fun Facts

  • The lake is essentially uninhabited: few living organisms can withstand this level of salinity. But the inhabitants of the surrounding area have repeatedly made attempts to settle in the lake new inhabitants. So, in 1875 they tried to release two whales into the lake! Most likely, they did not survive. And in 1987, a member of the Chilean flamingo, Pink Floyd, escaped from a Salt Lake City bird house and spent some time near the lake. His example of endurance inspired Utah residents, who immediately came up with the idea of convincing biologists to have a population of such flamingos stocked on the lake. But the biologists argued forcefully that such a decision would be ecologically unsound.
  • The main inhabitant of the lake is the saltwater shrimp. It serves as an essential source of food for migratory birds that stop here. And shrimp eggs of this species are harvested and then used in commercial aquaculture.
  • The predecessor of Great Salt Lake, Lake Bonneville, got its name in honor of officer L. Bonneville, whose adventures were described by American author W. Irving. And dubbed the ancient lake in a similar way by the American geologist G K. Gilbert.
  • The lake water contains about eight times more salt than sea water. This level of salinity (from 140 to 300%o) makes it possible to use its resources for medicinal purposes, so the lake is often called the “Dead Sea of America. Although swimming entirely in it is not recommended. The lake’s reserves are also used to produce glauber and table salt. Total lake salt reserves are estimated at 6 billion tons.
  • The largest population of bison in the U.S. lives on one of the islands of the Great Salt Lake, which is called Antelope Island.
  • The outstanding master of land art, American artist Robert Smithson, built one of his most significant and undoubtedly most quoted landscape installations in the northwest arm of the lake in 1970 – the geosculpture Spiral Wharf. The object was built of mud, salt crystals, basalt crumbs and earth in six days. But you can see it only from above. And that is when the water level is lowered to values less than 1 280 m (the usual height for the lake) above sea level: up close it looks more like a more or less neat pile of rubble and earth. Now most of the time the object is submerged and an idea of it can be made rather by the remaining photos and documents. The spiral went from the shore itself, and its total length was about 500 m. It was possible to walk along it if one wished, and the author was extremely pleased with the semantic purity of his work, because having reached the very end of the spiral, the viewer did not find anything special there, except for lake water and emptiness.
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