Warning to meteorite hunters and other drivers: Keep off the Great Salt Lake’s lakebed

“It busts the crusts,” it’s illegal, and it kicks up dangerous dust.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sand art and tire tracks along the shore of the Great Salt Lake at Stansbury Island on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

Increased interest in the Great Salt Lake has led to increased visitation, and lake managers worry an onslaught of motor vehicles driving along its receding shores are kicking up plumes of dust.

The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, which manages the lakebed, reports seeing a spike in motorized vehicles zipping across exposed playas around the lake, according to a news release. Driving on the Great Salt Lake’s lakebed is not only illegal, but it also exacerbates the looming threat of dust pollution as the lake shrivels.

That’s because a thick salt crust creates a protective layer keeping much of the lakebed dust from becoming emissive. But the longer it’s exposed to the weather, the more that crust erodes away.

“Also, if you have people traveling across the lakebed illegally, motorized travel ... it busts the crust” and exacerbates the problem, Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake coordinator with the division, said in an interview.

(Jim Winder | Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands) State officials who manage the Great Salt Lake have seen increased use of motorized vehicles on the lakebed.

Lakebed dust contains fine particulate matter that can penetrate the lungs and other organs. The Great Salt Lake’s dust also contains dangerous pollutants like arsenic, researchers have found. In addition, the dust accelerates snowmelt, causing havoc for the ski industry and Wasatch Front water supplies.

Around 800 square miles of vulnerable lakebed is currently exposed, Vernon confirmed.

State officials have had to deploy extra patrols on the lakebed, particularly after The Salt Lake Tribune ran a story last week about a man who found a piece of a recently fallen meteorite west of the Great Salt Lake’s waters, Vernon said. Hordes of professional and hobbyist meteorite hunters have begun combing the area ever since the space rock boomed across northern Utah on Aug. 13.

“Unfortunately, with the recent meteor explosion,” Vernon said, “there’s rumor that there are pieces out there.”

Driving on the lakebed without permission is a class B misdemeanor according to state code. Cars, trucks and all-terrain vehicles can also get stuck in the lake’s muck, requiring difficult rescue and further damaging the lakebed, the division reports.

“It also has serious implications for wildlife, air quality, and the sensitive GSL ecosystem,” Ben Stireman, sovereign lands program administrator for the division, said in the news release.