Perspective | Published:

Decline of the world's saline lakes

Nature Geoscience volume 10, pages 816821 (2017) | Download Citation


Many of the world's saline lakes are shrinking at alarming rates, reducing waterbird habitat and economic benefits while threatening human health. Saline lakes are long-term basin-wide integrators of climatic conditions that shrink and grow with natural climatic variation. In contrast, water withdrawals for human use exert a sustained reduction in lake inflows and levels. Quantifying the relative contributions of natural variability and human impacts to lake inflows is needed to preserve these lakes. With a credible water balance, causes of lake decline from water diversions or climate variability can be identified and the inflow needed to maintain lake health can be defined. Without a water balance, natural variability can be an excuse for inaction. Here we describe the decline of several of the world's large saline lakes and use a water balance for Great Salt Lake (USA) to demonstrate that consumptive water use rather than long-term climate change has greatly reduced its size. The inflow needed to maintain bird habitat, support lake-related industries and prevent dust storms that threaten human health and agriculture can be identified and provides the information to evaluate the difficult tradeoffs between direct benefits of consumptive water use and ecosystem services provided by saline lakes.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    , , , & Estimating the volume and age of water stored in global lakes using a geo-statistical approach. Nat. Commun. 7, 13603 (2016).

  2. 2.

    Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Wetlands and Water Synthesis (World Resources Institute, 2005).

  3. 3.

    What future for saline lakes? Environ. Sci. Pol. Sustain. Dev. 38, 12–39 (1996).

  4. 4.

    The Aral Sea disaster. AREPS 35, 47–72 (2007).

  5. 5.

    Conservation of salt lakes. Hydrobiologia 267, 292–306 (1993).

  6. 6.

    , , , & in Aquatic Ecosystems: Trends and Global Prospects (ed. Polunin, N. V. C.) 94–112 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008).

  7. 7.

    The world's vanishing lakes. Curr. Biol. 27, 43–46 (2017).

  8. 8.

    et al. The world's earliest Aral-Sea type disaster: the decline of the Loulan Kingdom in the Tarim Basin. Sci. Rep. 7, 43102 (2017).

  9. 9.

    et al. Salton Sea Ecosystem Monitoring and Assessment Plan Open-File Report 2013–1133 (United States Geological Survey, 2013).

  10. 10.

    et al. Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Nature 468, 334–334 (2010).

  11. 11.

    , & Why the limiting nutrient differs between temperate coastal seas and freshwater lakes: a matter of salt. Limnol. Oceanogr. 49, 2236–2241 (2004).

  12. 12.

    Comparative population ecology of Ephydra hians say (Diptera, Ephydridae) at Mono Lake (California) and Abert Lake (Oregon). Hydrobiologia 158, 145–166 (1988).

  13. 13.

    Avian diets in a saline ecosystem: Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA. Human–Wildlife Int. 7, 149–159 (2013).

  14. 14.

    Ramsar Sites Information Service (Ramsar, accessed 30 September 2017);

  15. 15.

    WHSRN List of Sites (Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, 2017);

  16. 16.

    Economic Significance of the Great Salt Lake to the State of Utah (Bioeconomics, 2012).

  17. 17.

    & Reclaiming the Aral Sea. Sci. Am. 298, 64–71 (2008).

  18. 18.

    & Dust storms and their impact on ocean and human health. EcoHealth 1, 284–295 (2004).

  19. 19.

    , , & What have we learned? A review of the literature on children's health and the environment in the Aral Sea area. Int. J. Public Health 56, 125–138 (2011).

  20. 20.

    et al. Dust emission and environmental changes in the dried bottom of the Aral Sea. Aeolian Res. 17, 101–115 (2015).

  21. 21.

    Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District: 2016 Owens Valley Planning Area PM10 State Implementation Plan (Ramboll Environ, 2016);

  22. 22.

    Survey of Reported Health Effects of Owens Lake Particulate Matter (Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, 2000).

  23. 23.

    & The effects of salinity on plankton and benthic communities in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA: a microcosm experiment. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 72, 807–817 (2015).

  24. 24.

    et al. Effects of salinity on survival, growth, reproductive and life span characteristics of Artemia populations from Urmia Lake and neighboring lagoons. Pakistan J. Biol. Sci. 11, 164–172 (2008).

  25. 25.

    Lake Uromiyeh: A Concise Baseline Report (ed Moser, M.) (Conservation of Iranian Wetlands Project, Impel Review Initiative Department of Environment, United Nations Development Program, 2012).

  26. 26.

    in The Carl Beck Papers Vol. 905 (eds Chase, W., Donnorummo, B. & Linden, R.) 120 (University of Pittsburgh, 1991).

  27. 27.

    Saline Lake Ecosystems of the World (Springer, 1986). Note that Hammer ignored the Aral Sea, Caspean Sea and Argentina's Mar Chiquita, the eighth largest saline lake

  28. 28.

    & in In Great Salt Lake: An Overview Of Change (ed J. W. Gwynn) 343–374 (Utah Department of Natural Resources, 2002).

  29. 29.

    , & Multidecadal drought cycles in the Great Basin recorded by the Great Salt Lake: modulation from a transition-phase teleconnection. J. Clim. 25, 1711–1721 (2012).

  30. 30.

    Boats lifted from Utah's famous Great Salt Lake; water levels too low to support sailing. The Salt Lake Tribune (24 April 2015);

  31. 31.

    As Great Salt Lake dries up, Utah air quality concerns blow in. Standard Examiner (11 October 2015);

  32. 32.

    Bear River Development Project (Utah Division of Natural Resources, 2017).

  33. 33.

    Recent desiccation of Western Great Basin saline lakes: lessons from Lake Abert, Oregon, USA. Sci. Total Environ. 554, 142–154 (2016).

  34. 34.

    et al. Role of climate variability and human activity on Poopo Lake droughts between 1990 and 2015 assessed using remote sensing data. Remote Sensing 9, rs9030218 (2017).

  35. 35.

    et al. Planning for an uncertain future: climate change sensitivity assessment toward adaptation planning for public water supply. Earth Interact. 17, EI000501.1 (2013).

  36. 36.

    , & Impact of climate change on water level fluctuation of Issyk-Kul Lake. Arabian J. Geosci. 8, 5361–5371 (2015).

  37. 37.

    et al. A complete hydro-climate model chain to investigate the influence of sea surface temperature on recent hydroclimatic variability in subtropical South America (Laguna Mar Chiquita, Argentina). Clim. Dyn. 46, 1783–1798 (2016).

  38. 38.

    in The Lakes Handbook, Volume 2, Lake Restoration And Rehabilitation (eds O'Sullivan, P. E. & Reynolds, C. S.) 200–240 (Blackwell Science Ltd., 2005).

  39. 39.

    et al. Sensitivity of aquatic ecosystems to climatic and anthropogenic changes: the Basin and Range, American Southwest and Mexico. Hydrol. Process. 11, 1023–1041 (1997).

  40. 40.

    The future Aral Sea: hope and despair. Environ. Earth Sci. 75, 844 (2016).

  41. 41.

    , & How do changes to the railroad causeway in Utah's Great Salt Lake affect water and salt flow? Plos One 10, 0144111 (2015).

  42. 42.

    The public trust doctrine, private water allocation, and Mono Lake: the historic saga of National Audubon Society v. Superior Ct. Environ. Law Rev. 45, 561 (2015).

  43. 43.

    Can a controversial canal stop thousands of sinkholes from forming around the Dead Sea? Science (22 September 2016).

  44. 44.

    The political-economy of western water finance: cost allocation and the Bonneville Unit of the Central Utah Project. Am. J. Agric. Econ. 69, 303–310 (1987).

  45. 45.

    Los Angeles Department of Water and Power 2016 Annual Owens Valley Report (Lost Angeles Department of Water and Power, 2016);

  46. 46.

    Conservation Assessment for Walker Lake in Mineral County, Nevada (The Nature Conservancy, 2013).

  47. 47.

    SWCA. Final Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan and Record of Decision (Utah Department of Natural Resources; Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, 2013).

  48. 48.

    Water Rights for Great Salt Lake: Is it the Impossible Dream? (Utah Water Law, 2016);

  49. 49.

    et al. A millennium-length reconstruction of Bear River stream flow, Utah. J. Hydrol. 529, 524–534 (2015).

  50. 50.

    Problems of the Aral Sea 34–35 (Institute of Geography, 1969).

  51. 51.

    & Bathymetry of Walker Lake, West-Central Nevada Scientific Investigations Report 2007–5012 (US Geological Survey, 2007);

  52. 52.

    & A Brief Appraisal of the Water Resources of the Walker Lake Area, Mineral, Lyon, and Churchill Counties, Nevada (Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 1967);

  53. 53.

    & On the interaction between bathymetry and climate in the system dynamics and preferred levels of the Great Salt Lake. Water Resour. Res. 47, R009561 (2011).

  54. 54.

    Great Salt Lake at Saltair Boat Harbor (United States Geological Survey, 2017).

  55. 55.

    , & Simulation of Owens Lake Water Levels Publication 41155 (Desert Research Institute, University of Nevada, 1997).

  56. 56.

    A Manual Of Lake Morphometry (Springer, 1981).

  57. 57.

    & An examination of the sensitivity of the Great Salt Lake to changes in inputs. Water Resour. Res. 48, W11511 (2012).

  58. 58.

    Water Related Land Use (Utah Division of Natural Resources, accessed 30 September 2017);

  59. 59.

    Consumptive Use of Irrigated Crops in Utah Research Report 145. (Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, 1994);

  60. 60.

    & Potential crop evapotranspiration and surface evaporation estimates via a gridded weather forcing dataset. J. Hydrol. 546, 450–463 (2017).

  61. 61.

    PRISM Climate Data (PRISM Climate Group, 2017);

  62. 62.

    State of Utah: Municipal and Industrial Water Supply and Use Study. Summary 2010 (Utah Department of Natural Resources, 2014);

  63. 63.

    Utah Wetland Functional Classification (Utah Geological Survey, Utah Division of Natural Resources, 2014);

  64. 64.

    & Uncertainty in Great Lakes Water Balance Scientific Investigations Report 2004-5100 (US Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey, 2005)

  65. 65.

    Natural evaporation from open water, bare soil and grass. Proc. R. Soc. Sect. A. 108, 120–145 (1948).

  66. 66.

    & Simulated watershed responses to land cover changes using the Regional Hydro-Ecological Simulation System. Hydro. Proc. 28, 4511–4528 (2014).

Download references


Discussions with D.G. Tarboton and J.C. Schmidt facilitated our analysis and helped improve the manuscript. Contributions by S.E.N. were supported by the National Science Foundation cooperative agreement EPSCoR IIA-1208732. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Contributions by R.J.D. were partially supported by a US Bureau of Reclamation, WaterSmart Grant no. R13AC80039.

Author information


  1. Department of Watershed Sciences & Ecology Center, Utah State University, Logan, Utah 84322, USA

    • Wayne A. Wurtsbaugh
    • , Sarah E. Null
    •  & Peter Wilcock
  2. Utah Division of Water Resources, Salt Lake City, Utah 84116, USA

    • Craig Miller
  3. Rocky Mountain Research Station, US Forest Service, Ogden, Utah 84401, USA

    • R. Justin DeRose
  4. Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah 84123, USA

    • Maura Hahnenberger
  5. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Salt Lake City and Wildland Resources Department, Utah State University, Utah 84322 USA

    • Frank Howe
  6. Department of Geoscience, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59812, USA

    • Johnnie Moore


  1. Search for Wayne A. Wurtsbaugh in:

  2. Search for Craig Miller in:

  3. Search for Sarah E. Null in:

  4. Search for R. Justin DeRose in:

  5. Search for Peter Wilcock in:

  6. Search for Maura Hahnenberger in:

  7. Search for Frank Howe in:

  8. Search for Johnnie Moore in:


All authors contributed equally to writing the paper. S.E.N. produced Fig. 1. W.A.W produced Figs 2, 4 and 5. C.M., R.J.D. and W.A.W. produced Fig. 3.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wayne A. Wurtsbaugh.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history





Further reading