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The Great Salt Lake is Shrinking—Here’s Why Skiers Should Care

The Great Salt Lake is Shrinking—Here’s Why Skiers Should Care

A new backcountry ski film called “Downstream” highlights the most pressing environmental issue currently facing Utah.

Here’s what could happen if Utah’s Great Salt Lake continues to dry up: toxic dust could create a massive environmental health hazard for millions of people, migratory birds would be heavily impacted, and the ski resorts around northern Utah would cease to have powder. None of those are good things, clearly.

As the New York Times stated in a recent article on Utah’s “environmental nuclear bomb”: “Utah’s dilemma raises a core question as the country heats up: How quickly are Americans willing to adapt to the effects of climate change, even as those effects become urgent, obvious, and potentially catastrophic?”

Utah-based skier and atmospheric scientist Thorn Merrill, as well as filmmaker Zach Coury, recently finished a new short environmental backcountry ski film called “Downstream” that highlights Utah’s most urgent environmental issue—the rapid shrinking of Great Salt Lake—through the eyes of a skier and environmental scientist. The film, which was supported by Flylow, premiered March 3 in Salt Lake City to two sold-out shows and can now be viewed online.

“Most of us obsess about when exactly it will snow and how much there will be,” Merrill says in the film. “We tend to worry less about where it all goes when we put our gear away for the summer. It’s not as obvious, but the melted snow making its way downstream is every bit as important as it falling in the first place.”

Utah’s Great Salt Lake—the largest body of water in the U.S. behind the Great Lakes—has dropped by over 17 feet from its maximum level, and in July 2021, the lake reached its lowest water level on record. Drought, warmer temperatures, and excess water usage are the main causes of the lower lake level. The solution is rather simple: More water from melting snow needs to reach the lake, which means less water for homes, agriculture, and business. “If we want to keep enjoying our natural spaces, we need to make sure enough water flows all the way to Great Salt Lake,” Merrill says in the movie.

Merrill, an avid backcountry skier who moved to Utah from Vermont, is currently pursuing a graduate degree in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, where he’s studying dust that blows into the Wasatch Front, home to over 2.5 million people.

Without major changes, Great Salt Lake could be completely dry in five years. That would have catastrophic effects on the ecosystem, the area’s air quality and public health, and also, yes, lake-effect storms that skiers like us enjoy very much. In his film, Merrill reminds viewers of the actions they can take to protect Great Salt Lake. For Utah residents, you can alter your water consumption and tell your elected officials to protect the lake, as well as vote in candidates who care about the lake’s environmental hazards.

Learn more about this critical subject and how to get involved at the Friends of Great Salt Lake. And check out the film, “Downstream.”

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