Weather map update highlights shrinking Great Salt Lake

Nov 23, 2021

Historical (left) and recent (right) satellite images of the north arm of Great Salt Lake.
Credit Google Earth

As the drought continues, Great Salt Lake continues to shrink, but online maps have been slow to catch up. However, there’s been a recent effort to update maps used by weather services across the country to increase awareness about our declining lake levels.

Brian Maffly, the public lands reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune and his colleagues have been watching the water levels of Great Salt Lake decline in recent years with alarm.

As they followed news stories and research about the shrinking lake, they noticed that maps of the lake used by weather forecasting services across the country and by entities like the National Weather Service hadn’t been updated since the 1980s when the lake was at its highest.

“Pretty much all the other weather forecasting services show the Great Salt Lake at its historic average, which is about twice as big as what it really is now today…there's just half as much water in the Great Salt Lake as there is, quote, unquote, normal use.”

They reached out to the weather service the Tribune uses, AccuWeather, who not only agreed to update their maps, but also put together some striking visualizations of water level declines using Google Earth imagery, with the hopes of reaching a significant number of people across the country.

Timelapse image of decreasing water levels of Great Salt Lake's south arm.
Credit Google Earth

“We think it’s going to be millions of people. These are maps that people view on a day-to-day basis while they're checking weather forecasts. You know, people are looking at their weather forecasts online, and if it's an AccuWeather product, now, what they'll see is the actual footprint of the Great Salt Lake as it is today,” Maffly said.

Maffly hopes AccuWeather’s changes will pave the way for other outlets to do the same and will garner more attention to the shrinking Great Salt Lake.

“A map on paper is a fixed object, but a map online, you can update as needed. And so there seems to be no excuse for not using updated maps when you have an online product. And that's where we're coming from on this…we think it would be great if the National Weather Service and the other forecasting services would follow suit,” Maffly said.