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Lake Effect: Great Salt Lake as a barometer of climate change

Jim Steenburgh, smiling, floats in Great Salt Lake. His torso and legs are covered with water. He is raising his hands and feet out of the water.

My name is Jim Steenburgh. I'm a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah. I do most of my work on lake effect storms, not just in the Great Salt Lake, but of lakes around the world and seas around the world. And I'm a pretty avid skier, I still ski over 50 days a year.

I look at the Great Salt Lake as this barometer of climate change, and humans and what we're doing to the hydrologic system that we have here.

On a personal level, it's just a neat place. I've gone and visited Antelope Island, and we’d do some hiking out there. You know, I've been almost all the way around the Great Salt Lake for work at one time or another, installing weather instruments, you know, way up on the west side of the lake. You get out there, it's very quiet, and you hope you don't get a flat tire. And I've also been swimming in the lake a couple times, including in the north arm where the salinity is super high. And my recommendation to people if you're going to do that is to bring a large jug of fresh water to wash off with, which I didn't do.

I see it as, like I said, a barometer of climate change, but a barometer also of our environment. And it's kind of a canary in the coal mine right now. It's telling us that, hey, look, you're doing things that are going to have some detrimental impacts on the environment of northern Utah, which is a beautiful state.

We've tried to understand what makes lake effect happen a little bit better. It's not quite as simple as just cold air over the warm lake. So it's important for skiing, it's important for the greatest snow on Earth. So that's one of the reasons why I got interested in it. That's another reason to be concerned about the shrinking Great Salt Lake. I think people are…they tend to think the Great Salt Lake is hugely important for snow here in Utah. It's about 5% of the total snowfall in the Cottonwoods. And so that doesn't sound like a huge number, but it can be important especially since lake effect is most prolific in October, November and early December to help get the ski season going.

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.
Ellis Juhlin is a science reporter here at Utah Public Radio and a Master's Student at Utah State. She studies Ferruginous Hawk nestlings and the factors that influence their health. She loves our natural world and being part of wildlife research. Now, getting to communicate that kind of research to the UPR listeners through this position makes her love what she does even more. In her free time, you can find her outside on a trail with her partner Matt and her goofy pups Dodger and Finley. They love living in a place where there are year-round adventures to be had!