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A blue color gradient graphic shows a drop of water. Text reads, "Great Salt Lake Collaborative."
Great Salt Lake Collaborative
Great Salt Lake is at its lowest water level on record and continues to shrink. Utah Public Radio has teamed up with more than a dozen Utah organizations for the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a group that has come together to share multimedia stories and rigorous reports about the lake and ways to protect this critical body of water before it's too late.

Great Salt Lake tar seeps offer insights on environment and life

As part of The Great Salt Lake Collaborative, Gretchen Henderson, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas, spoke to KUER about her new book entitled “Life in the Tar Seeps”. The book – a commentary on personal and environmental healing – was inspired by naturally-occurring tar fields by Great Salt Lake’s Spiral Jetty. These sticky tar puddles entrap birds, mammals and insects, freezing them in time as they’re slowly engulfed in the natural asphalt.

Henderson discovered parallels between the creatures stuck in the tar and her own life.

“I had come about two years after being hit by a car in a crosswalk, which is a man made asphalt. And so the birds crossing these tar seeps and my own experience of kind of crossing a migratory crosswalk, those metaphors and the larger state of the world, of all the different ways that we impact the earth and engage with the earth came to life.”

Scientists have been using the tar seeps as a way to study local wildlife. Sharing stories of these imperiled places, Henderson argues, is critical to protecting them.

“We have so much scientific data about what’s happening with the climate crisis, and yet it’s being accompanied by misunderstanding or even denial. And so stories have that capability to not only speak to the mind, but speak to the heart.”

Until recently, Great Salt Lake was often considered a useless body of water, and was largely ignored for conservation initiatives. However, learning to love difficult landscapes, like Great Salt Lake and its tar seeps, can ultimately change whether these areas are preserved for the future.

“It’s a question of what does that love do in a sense of transformative action. How does that work its way into our everyday use of not only water but natural resources more generally?”

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.