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Add dust to the list of snow issues Utah will have to consider for its Olympic bid

The southernmost exposed lakebed of the Great Salt Lake as seen from Great Salt Lake State Park, with the Rio Tinto Kennecott smelter in the background, March 25, 2023.
Jim Hill
The southernmost exposed lakebed of the Great Salt Lake as seen from Great Salt Lake State Park, with the Rio Tinto Kennecott smelter in the background, March 25, 2023.

When the lakebed of the Great Salt Lake is exposed, it leaves behind something that threatens Utah’s famous “Greatest Snow on Earth”: dust. The dust could have repercussions for the state’s hope of hosting the winter Olympics.

A new study out of the University of Utah found that wind-blown dust during the 2022 snow season caused Alta’s snowpack to melt 17 days earlier than it would have. The 2022 snowmelt season was the dustiest since researchers started recording in 2009. That time period, 2021 and 2022, was also when the Great Salt Lake’s water levels declined to record lows.

Snow is one of the planet’s brightest natural surfaces, so it reflects a lot of sunlight, according to McKenzie Skiles, assistant professor of geography at the University of Utah and senior author of the study. But when there’s dust on top of the snow, it’s darker and soaks up more sunlight.

“It’s actually absorbed sunlight, not air temperature that melts snow. We often correlate it with air temperature because that also goes up when it’s sunnier,” Skiles said. “So if you make the snow darker, that’s a very effective way to melt snow quicker.”

There’s no official research yet on 2023, but Skiles said it was another dusty winter with far more dust storms and earlier snowmelt compared to previous years.

These increasing toxic dust storms cause a number of problems. Skiles is worried about Utah’s ability to use its limited water efficiently because current snowmelt models don’t account for dust. She’s also worried that “Great Salt Lake fatigue” and a strong 2023 winter could lead to a lack of action.

Researchers also point out in the study that it could spell trouble for the state’s snowsports industry, which contributes billions to Utah’s economy. As Utah chases toward its dream of hosting the Winter Games again in either 2030 or 2034, it will need to take dust into account.

Researchers found 45% of the dust came from the Great Salt Lake Desert, or the West Desert, and 17% came from the Sevier and Tule dry lake beds. Only 23% of the dust came from the Great Salt Lake.

While that amount might seem small, it surprised researchers because the exposed lakebed of the Great Salt Lake is a relatively small area compared to the West Desert. Out of the sources identified, the Great Salt Lake had the highest dust emissions per surface area.

Skiles said this means the Great Salt Lake is a “very efficient dust emitter.” It’s also close to the Wasatch Mountains, which makes it more likely that dust will end up in the snowpack.

“There’s basically no avoiding it,” Skiles said. “So as a new dust source that’s really close, unless we keep water in the lake, we could probably just keep expecting to see this into the future.”

Fraser Bullock, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, said the bid team is concerned about the dust, as any Utah citizen should be.

The Winter Olympic Games are typically held in February and the Winter Paralympic Games in March. Currently, Skiles said the majority of dust storms are seen in March, April and May. She added these spring dust storms pack a “big punch” when it comes to snowmelt because the snow is already at or near the melting point.

If things continue to get drier, Skiles said those dust storms could come earlier and earlier in the year. If “dust season” comes earlier than March and snow is still frequently falling, the dust will get buried under new, bright snow and won’t have much of an impact. It would be worse if earlier dust storms were combined with low snowfall.

“Our biggest risk is really with the Paralympics, because the Paralympics go to mid-March,” Bullock said. “If you combine an early melt with warmer temperatures, we have to be very cognizant of that.”

In preparing for the games to potentially be hosted in Utah, Bullock said they have to look at the conditions for the athletes and the quality of their field of play, especially for outdoor snowsports. With climate change, there are a number of things that could affect snow quality, including dust — which also adds to air pollution.

The bid team doesn't currently have any specific plans relating to the increasing dust storms, Bullock said. But as they work toward hosting the games, they will keep studying the issue and partner with existing organizations that are trying to solve the problem and restore the Great Salt Lake.

“To be able to come together, and work together and use the voice of the Olympics and Paralympics to maybe accelerate these projects. Not only for the use of the games, but for the betterment of our communities,” Bullock said.

Even with Utah’s environmental challenges, Bullock personally feels confident in their ability to host a successful Winter Games that benefits the state and is a good experience for the athletes.

“One of the things that Utah does is when it's confronted with a serious problem, we have the ability to come together across whatever lines there are to come up with a solution that everybody can work with,” Bullock said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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