Lying within the rugged wilderness of the state of Utah, shimmering like a mirage in the desolate scrubland surroundings is one of the largest and most unusual lakes in North America; the Great Salt Lake. With its fishless briny waters shimmering in the hot sun and much of its north and west shores uninhabited mountain peaks and barren salt flats, this enormous, enigmatic lake is a somewhat haunting place steeped in history, natural wonders, myths, legends, and mysteries. Here is a place thick with not only intriguing natural phenomena, but also its fair share of weird history and high strangeness.
Located in the northern part of Utah, Great Salt Lake is the largest salt water lake in the Western Hemishpere, and after the great lakes the largest lake by surface area in the United States. It covers an average area of around 1, 700 square miles (4, 400 km2), although this can fluctuate somewhat due to the effects of evaporation on its shallow waters, which only reach a maximum depth of around 33 feet (11 metres). The lake is so large that it exerts a strong influence on the weather of the surrounding area stretching for hundreds of miles. Great Salt Lake is a remnant of what was once an even larger lake called Lake Bonneville which was a pluvial lake, or a landlocked basin filled with water from melting glaciers and precipitation, that covered much of Utah during the ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch, which lasted from about 2, 588, 000 to 11, 700 years ago. At its peak size, Lake Bonneville covered around 22, 400 square miles (58, 000 km2). Over time, the water of this vast lake seeped out, and coupled with the effects of environmental warming, it broke up into the smaller Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, Sevier Lake, and Rush Lake, with Great Salt Lake being the largest of these.
The lake is unique due to its unusually high salt content. Although Great Salt Lake is fed by three major rivers and several smaller streams, there are no outlets, and this coupled with the effects of millions of tons of minerals being constantly brought here through these inlets, as well as constant evaporation, have made its waters extremely saline, around 5 to 6 times saltier than seawater on average. Early explorers to the area, baffled by such a salty lake so far inland, were mistakenly convinced that it was an extension of the Pacific Ocean, connected somehow through a subterranean tunnel system. The highly salty water has made the lake popular with swimmers due to its ability to allow them to effortlessly float upon the surface.
This unusually high level of salinity has rendered the lake inhospitable to most aquatic organisms, and although fish can be found in the various surrounding incoming waterways and marshes, they are not able to survive within the lake proper. The only naturally occurring creatures that call this place home are the ubiquitous brine shrimp, which are tiny crustaceans barely half an inch long with transparent bodies, brine flies, and a few species of bacteria and algae. There are so many brine shrimp, in fact, that Great Salt Lake is the world’s largest exporter of the creatures and their eggs, cornering around 90 % of the market. The harvested brine shrimp are used mostly as food for the aquarium trade, as food for prawn farms in Asia, and in the testing of various chemicals, drugs, and toxins. This staggering number of brine shrimp unfortunately is one of the reasons that a sickening sulphur-like stench is known to waft off of the lake. The shores of the lake are also clouded with thick swarms of brine flies during warm weather peaks, which are so numerous that at certain times of the year there are as many as 370 million flies per beach mile, making the air absolutely black with them.
The lack of aquatic life diversity has often led to Great Salt Lake being referred to as “America’s Dead Sea, ” however this couldn’t be further from the truth. The vast numbers of brine shrimp and brine flies found here serve as food for a mind boggling array of birds which flock to the region by the millions, as well as many species of native birds and waterfowl. The surrounding marshes are also home to abundant bird life, and the fish that live in the inlets are fed upon by terns and even pelicans. Two areas known as Bear River Bay and Farmington Bay are known to develop lower salinity levels than the rest of the lake during melting snows, sometimes even approaching those of fresh water, which increases the biodiversity found in those areas, allowing for a larger variety of invertebrates and even fish that boldly venture into the less salty water found here. The incredible diversity of birds that congregate in or around Great Salt Lake has made way for several bird refuges and sanctuaries scattered throughout the region.
Although Great Salt Lake itself is far too salty to really support complex organisms other than brine shrimp within its depths, there is still a rich and strange history of people trying to populate the lake with various types of aquatic life nevertheless. In the 1800s there were numerous attempts to stock the lake with sea life such as oysters, eels, and crabs, yet all of these attempts failed as none of them could survive the extreme salinity levels and temperature fluctuations here. Even stranger was one man’s reported attempt to introduce whales to the lake.