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LAND OF THE LAKE: WHAT’S IN, UNDER AND AROUND THE GREAT SALT LAKE?

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What's in the Great Salt Lake? What riches and mysteries do its briny waters contain?

The lake, its islands and surrounding environs have been the subjects of study by scientists, environmentalists and those seeking recreational opportunities. The lake water itself is thick, literally, with salt, and the history of the huge inland sea is thick, too, with fact and legend.Its natural contents are largely unique because the lake is unique - five to six times saltier than the oceans, with no outlet and so huge it influences the weather for hundreds of miles. Its waters are mined like the earth for salt and minerals, and its one natural life form, brine shrimp, are harvested like farm crops.

Under its surface are the wrecks of an unknown number of aircraft, train car parts and sandbars. And beneath its bed it harbors oil, layers of salt-encrusted minerals and fetid masses of pickled sewage.

While the lake is mostly inhospitable to boaters, swimmers at lakeside resorts have been fascinated by its ability to keep them floating "like corks."

The constantly changing lake has a colorful history and has inspired a number of tall tales about monsters who may call its depths home.

Don Currey, University of Utah geography professor, says visiting Antelope Island is a metaphysical experience.

"You're surrounded by buffalo and antelope. You're walking through time. It is the archetypal basin and range. You're riding high. You have a sense of being in the middle of great basin tectonics. It's a class in itself."

True to its name, the lake water holds plenty of salt. Concentrations of salt in the lake vary considerably though, from season to season, from year to year and in different locations and depths, but it is generally five to six times saltier than the ocean.

Wallace Gwynn, a saline geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, said the Union Pacific railroad's earthen-fill causeway across the north end of the lake has divided it into two parts.

The area north of the causeway is more salty now than ever, while the south is less salty. He said this man-made barrier has lessened the dramatic "float like a cork" phenomenon that was so strong on the lake's south end at Saltair Resort earlier in this century.

Mineral extraction is a big business, with Great Salt Lake Chemicals Corporation employing huge evaporation ponds and a trench near Little Mountain, west of Ogden. Much smaller companies, such as Trace Chemicals Company in West Haven, Weber County, also capitalize on the brine's mineralcontents. Other companies harvest salt for the table, cattle or winter roadway use from the lake.

The saltwater in the lake itself is usually too concentrated to freeze. However, during calm winter weather, fresh water from streams flowing into the lake can freeze before it mixes with the lake water. Rain or snow also doesn't instantly mix with the brine. At times, there may be a narrow layer of fresher water on top of the lake. It takes a wind and some action within the lake to mix the waters.

This has sometimes caused an ice sheet several inches thick to extend from the Weber River west to Fremont Island. In the early 1900s, this ice sheet made it possible for coyotes to cross to Fremont Island and attack sheep pastured there.

The breakup of thick ice has also been known to form icebergs. One iceberg in 1942 was 30 feet high and 100 feet wide. 23, 1972.

Icebergs also formed in 1984 during the wet winter when the lake's salinity dropped. The scene was described as mountains of shaved ice that roamed the lake acting like bulldozers - pushing aside anything in their way - trees, fences, old cars.

It's no secret that fish occasionally float into the Great Salt Lake from its tributaries, like the Weber or Bear rivers. However, they are usually already dead.

History books refer to various attempts to stock the lake with eels, oasters, crabs and the like, but none succeeded. Most sea life can't survive the extremely salty waters and those that can can't stand the wide temperature changes of the lake water from winter to summer.

However, fresh-water fish, like carp, were reported in the flooded lands of Centerville and Farmington around the lake in 1984. Carp have always been found near places where fresh water flows into the lake, such as at Ogden Bay.

During the wet years of 1983-85, the lake's southern waters were only about 2.5 times brinier than the ocean because of the influx of so much fresh water.

According to Steve Phillips, media coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, there was a potpourri of fish - whitebass, trout, catfish and others - in the lake during the mid-1980s around the Jordan, Weber and Bear River drainages.

Phillips said the fish would get flushed into the lake and they did survive for several years until the salinity began rising. He doubts any remain in the lake today, although some carp may survive in areas of Farmington Bay.

The lake's only regular resident sea life are the brine shrimp. The brine shrimp's transparent body is rarely more than a half-inch long. They are used as fish food in aquariums and the Great Salt Lake supplies 90 percent of the world's inventory of brine shrimp eggs. Hat Island is the shrimp's favorite spot.

One study estimated that as many as 25 brine flies per square inch or 370 million per beach mile can be found along the lake during their warm-weather peak.

In the mid-1970s, one study found that the lake is part of the flyway between Canada and Mexico and that as many as 250,000 ducks and 10,000 Canadian Geese may be born annually on the lake and its shores. More pelicans may be born on the lake's islands than anywhere else in the nation.