Dust from Great Salt Lake helps algal blooms thrive, study finds

Feb 6, 2024, 6:31 PM | Updated: Feb 7, 2024, 8:20 am

LOGAN — A new study is putting a large part of the blame for algal blooms on blowing dust.

Researchers at Utah State University say it’s a growing problem, thanks to ongoing drought and construction.

“We wanted to know where this material is going and how it might be impacting these remote ecosystems,” said Janice Brahney, an associate professor of environmental biogeochemistry at Utah State University.

She began gathering samples from water systems across the western U.S. in 2017.

“Unequivocally. We saw that dust additions can lead to eutrophication,” Brahney said.

Eutrophication is a process where excessive nutrients lead to dense growth of plant life, killing off animal life due to a lack of oxygen, something Utah has seen more of in recent years.

cyanobacteria sign

A sign warns of a dangerous algal bloom. (KSL file photo)

“We found that the additional nutrients added by dust increase the tolerance ranges of the organism so that it could grow much more effectively under conditions it normally wouldn’t,” Brahney said.

Essentially, this acts as a catalyst for algal blooms. And that includes all kinds of dust, from construction and agricultural work to mining and even the bed of the shrinking Great Salt Lake.

‘Dust Lake City’ disaster looming as Utah professor fights to save the Great Salt Lake

Brahney said the wind picks up the smaller particles that tend to be higher in nutrients, which may also help explain why we’re seeing blooms in areas where we haven’t before.

“For the first time in the last couple of years, alpine systems in Wyoming have been experiencing toxic algal blooms,” Brahney added.

Looking ahead, she said there should be a focus on finding which sources cause the most harm and what can be done to reduce the damage.

“It’s important that we try to understand what’s happening to these freshwater resources that we depend on for drinking water, but also our ecosystems depend on,” Brahney said.

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Dust from Great Salt Lake helps algal blooms thrive, study finds