Salt Lake Utah, Cycle Barometer

OK, I’d been sent off to work in the salt mines by a comment on the Ostia Antica thread by tckev.

One thing lead to another, and I found myself looking at the Great Salt Lake history in Utah.

Great Salt Lake, Utah, 2003 Low

Great Salt Lake, Utah, 2003 Low

Original Image

This needs a lot more work than I can hope to put into it right now, but would be a great project for anyone with an interest. It’s pretty straight forward.

The Great Salt Lake is very shallow, so the area moves back and forth A Lot with rainfall changes. My thesis is that when we are cooling, we have a load of extra rain as it is what deposited all the heat at altitude when it was water vapor, then condenses and falls.

If this is true, one expects to find a load of rain during “cooling times” and with less rain during “heating times”, modulo a certain amount of lag time and edge effects at inflection points.

So I went off to read about The Great Salt Lake, and found that Utah had put in a major pumping station specifically to reduce the water level (that peaked in 1986) as it was causing unexpected flooding problems. Then the pumps got turned off and have never been needed again. (As we warmed out of that cold 1960-1980 time period).

Per the Great Salt Lake wiki

West Desert pumping project

Record high water levels in the 1980s caused massive property damage for owners on the eastern side of the lake, and started to erode the base of Interstate 80. In response, the state of Utah built the West Desert pumping project on the western side of the lake, featuring a pumping station (41°15′9.28″N 113°4′53.31″W) at Hogup Ridge, containing three pumps with a combined capability of releasing 1,500,000 US gallons per minute (95 m3/s); a 4.1-mile (6.6 km) outlet canal, an inlet canal, which allowed water from the Newfoundland Evaporation Basin to return to Great Salt Lake; 25 miles (40 km) of dikes, and a 10-mile (16 km) access road between the railroad town of Lakeside and the pumping station.[20]

The project was designed to increase the surface area of the Great Salt Lake, and therefore the rate of evaporation. The pumps released Great Salt Lake’s waters into the 320,000 acre (1300 km²) Newfoundland Evaporation Basin in the west desert. A weir in the dike at the south end of the Newfoundland Mountains regulated the level of water in the basin, and returned salty water from the basin to the main body of Great Salt Lake.[20]

At the end of their first year in operation, the pumps had released around 500,000 acre feet (0.6 km³) of water. The project was shut down in June 1989, as the lake had dropped almost 6 feet (2 m) since reaching its peak in June 1986 and March 1987. The Utah Division of Water Resources credits the project with “over one-third of that decline.”[20] In total, the pumps released 2.73 million acre feet (3.4 km³) of water while they operated.[21] Although the pumps are not currently in use, they are maintained in the event the lake rises to those levels again.[22]

But recently we’ve had an increase in rain in Utah. And we’re starting a cooling trend. Sooo….

The reasonable prediction is that, again with a bit of lag time, The Great Salt Lake ought to start rising again. Perhaps even enough that within a decade or so we could be looking at restarting those pumps…

A great small research project would be to take the recorded lake level history and plot it against the known temperature cycle of the PDO and see what the correlation and lag time might be. A “follow on” would be to see the level recently and map it against the recent temperature cycles to see if the historic pattern has been broken (and perhaps indicating that the thermometers are just not quite right now as they have lost their hook to the climate reality of the basin…)

The Great Salt Lake, Historic Ranges

The Great Salt Lake, Historic Ranges

If you click on the map you will get a truly gigantic one that has a readable legend. At this scale, just note that the shades of blue on the lake are indicating three historic levels. The 1963 historic low of 4191 feet (ASL), the average, and the 1986 high of 4212 feet (ASL).

In particular, notice those dates. 1963 was about a decade after the warm period had ended. We were hot in the 1930s – 40s, and started a cool off into the 1950s. Then, just about 1963 – 66 we started a very cold turn. That kept going through the 1970s and into the slightly warming 1980s. So, per my thesis, rain was falling and accumulating during that cooling cycle. Then, in the 1980s, we left the “new ice age” scare behind and started a bit of warming. Just in time for lake to crest in 1986. Since then, as we warmed, the lake has been dropping (even with the pumps turned off). Until now. So if we have entered a ‘cooling trend’ we ought to see more rain falling around Utah, and then with a bit of a lag, a rising Great Salt Lake.

News of note? From 10 August 2010:

Storm shatters rainfall records, floods homes across Utah

“There was 2 feet of water in the room in 10 seconds,” said the 16-year-old after a massive downpour hit his Draper neighborhood. “It got up to 41/2 to 5 feet deep before it stopped. We had to break a door down on the other side of the house to let all the water out.”

The potent storm shattered rainfall records for the date, caused havoc with roads in southern Salt Lake and Utah counties, prompted flash flood warnings in southwestern and central Utah and resulted in scattered power outages.

“We have had big storms before, but not with this result. The water was coming down Pioneer Road and right into our house,” she said. “There was water coming out of manholes. There was nothing we could have done to protect our house.”

But the sheer amount of rain that fell in a such short time — .39 inches in five minutes — may have been the main culprit. Debris flowed down Corner Canyon Thursday because the slope has not recovered from the fire, said Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. A half-inch of rain in one hour is enough to produce mud on such slopes, but this storm was much juicier.

So earlier this year they were getting dumped on.

But what was happening at the peak of the “warm cycle”?

Drought Conditions in Utah During 1999-2002: A Historical Perspective

So, just at the peak of temperatures (1998) and for 3 years after, we have a drought…

Then it goes on to give some history. Floods during the “cooling years” from 1952 to 1984, then droughts during the very hot 1930-36 window that brackets the ‘hottest year ever’ in the USA of 1934. It would be very interesting to find out if 1896-1905 was a hot time. It’s the wrong part of a 60 year cycle, but then again, we don’t know if the PDO is a regular 60 years all the time. 1988-1993 fits the hot cycle thesis, but 53-65 and 74-78 don’t quite. I think we need some better graphing analysis done on these individually. There may well be a faster period cycle on top of the longer period cycle that makes simple drought / flood dates less than an ideal metric. The “average” as indicated by lake level may be valuable here.

Utah’s weather is prone to extremes—from severe flooding to multiyear droughts. Five major floods occurred during 1952, 1965, 1966, 1983, and 1984, and six multiyear droughts occurred during 1896-1905, 1930-36, 1953-65, 1974-78 (U.S. Geological Survey, 1991), and more recently during 1988-93 and 1999-2002. The areal extent of floods generally is limited in size from one to several watersheds, whereas droughts generally affect most or all of the state. Southern Utah, in particular the Virgin River drainage basin, began experiencing drought conditions during the winter of 1998-99. By 2000, drought conditions were evident throughout all of Utah. The current drought (1999-2002) is comparable in length and magnitude to previous droughts; however, with population growth and increased demandfor water in Utah, the general effect is more severe.
During2002, the fourth straight year of nearly statewide drought conditions, some areasof Utah experienced record-low streamflows. Several record-low streamflows occurred in streams with records dating back to the 1900s. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) uses streamflow data from eight long-term streamflow-gagingstations for comparison of hydrologic conditions in Utah (fig. 1).

Matching this chart (from the same link) to the PDO and / or temperature graphs might be enlightening:

Utah Drought Index

Utah Drought Index

And, for folks who like “the data” we have this link:

where you can look up rainfall measurements all around the area. An “eyeball” of the chart looks to me like 2010 annual totals are much higher than 2007 annual totals, but it really needs more years of data and a proper graphing.

In Conclusion

No, nowhere near a proof of anything. But yes, it’s a very intriguing thing to investigate.

I’ve just turned up more of them than I can do right now. But I really do think this one has a great deal of promise. Rather like the “Salt Drinking Lake” that Adolfo pointed me at some time back. Perhaps he will post the pointer to that article again here … hint hint ;-)

If rainfall IS the correct barometer of cooling / warming cycles, then having a few shallow salt lakes around the world might just be the best proxy yet for a heat gain / heat loss indicator.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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22 Responses to Salt Lake Utah, Cycle Barometer

  1. boballab says:


    Here is a down and dirty comparison of the Annual Precip anomalies to the Annual Mean Temp anomalies at the Tooele Station in the USHCN database:

    Going by it looks like your hypothesis is standing up. Also notice the trend for Precip is roughly +3.5 inches and Temp is roughly +3.5°F

  2. Lynn Erickson says:

    The Great Salt Lake watershed is so heavily utilized for irrigation and municipal use that I think it would be futile to attempt to link lake level with rainfall. All the rivers feeding the lake are dammed, and the reservoirs can take years of above average rainfall to fill after periods of drought. Until the reservoirs are filled, the lake inflow is essentially insignificant.

    A case in point is the Bear River, the largest tributary to the lake. The river is diverted to Bear Lake, which is used as a storage reservoir. Bear Lake has a nominal surface area of 109 square miles, and after a drought period, was down 5.5 meters in elevation in 2004. It still has not yet recovered to full capacity. Other smaller tributaries are similarly utilized.

    The 0.39 inch of rain in five minutes was a summer localized thunderstorm. Weather not climate. The storm probably wasn’t really that unusual. It just happened to dump on a somewhat newly built-up area that didn’t have drainage to handle the deluge.

    The Utah drought/rain cycles are heavily influenced by the ENSO cycle, so that would also have to be factored in to any analysis looking for warming.

    All in all, I don’t think the Great Salt Lake is a good candidate to serve as a warming/cooling proxy.

  3. JRR Canada says:

    Thanks another fine musement.Saw a news scroll on CTV here in Canada that the obesity epedemic was measurable in domestic and wild animals as well as humans.No idea what study it was based on but seemed to me that maybe the cold is coming sooner than we think.Short rounded animals survive better in the cold,thats why I like the arctic, are the beasties getting ready?

  4. Lynn Erickson says:

    I probably should add to my comments above, that evaporation has a major affect on lake level. So you have to factor in wind, air and water temperature, and relative humidity to the analysis.

  5. Mike Jonas says:

    Correlation between the level of Lake George, NSW, Australia, and the solar cycle has been known about for some time. This item in Nature
    refers to it and gives a paper reference (NATURE, 112, 918, Dec. 22, 1923). I haven’t read the paper.

    This paper on Lake Victoria levels

    Click to access cli222_234.pdf

    also mentions Lake George : “The variations in the level of Lake George in Australia are also summarized in Table II (Hoyt and Schatten 1997after Brooks 1923). It is also reported that Lake Zurich,, Lake Hamun-Sumpf in Persia and the Great Salt Lake have major maxima and minima concurrently with Lake George (cited in Hoyt and Schatten 1997 and references therein).“.

    But this item which appears to be in response to the 1923 paper

    Click to access pnas01803-0102.pdf

    indicates that the Lake George / sunspot cycle correlation may be weak. “To take a specific instance, Lake Victoria” in Africa, where the rainfall seems primarily responsible for variations in level of the lake, the correlation coefficient of 0.915 has been found between the rainfall of the plateau region and the level of the lake, a correlation coefficient of 0.64 being found between sun-spots and rainfall in the same region. Similarly, for Lake Nyasa, Dixey has pointed out the cyclical nature of the variations in lake level and their correspondence with sun-spot numbers, the lake rising at sun-spot maxima. A much lower degree of correspondence has been observed between sun-spots and the successive levels of Lake George, Australia. An 11-year periodicity seems to be recognizable and a less definite 19-year periodicity. C. E. P. Brooks in commenting upon these low correlation values observes that “weather cycles are treacherous things, and it would not be safe to base a forecast on them.” His conservatism is based upon the short-range changes in Lake George.“.

    Methinks you have some interesting research to do …

  6. Mike Jonas says:

    I should add that Lake George has been dry for many years (it was full in the late 1970s but I think emptied and filled again once between then and now), and has now started filling again.

    I don’t know where you can find Lake George data, but there is a reference in here

    Click to access 92.pdf

    Fluctuation in water levels over the last 160 years have been reviewed by Burton and Wilson (1973) and Jacobson & Schuett (1979)” which might help.

    You might also be able to get an idea of the cycles from this newspaper search:

    Feb 1893 : “The lake has receded somewhat“.
    Oct 1915 : “Lake George has come back. Just now there is more water in it than has been seen in the locality for over 20 years.“.
    Sep 1920 : “It is now many years since the lake was full. In 1916 it extended to 15 miles by 8, but but the subsequent seasons of lessened rainfall emptied it again“.
    Apr 1950 : “Lake George is at its highest level since 1925“.
    Aug 1932 : “..the possibilities of the dry bed of Lake George as a motor speed course..“.
    Jun 1954 : “Trout released in Lake George several months ago appear to be surviving“.

    etc etc

  7. George says:

    You might find these interesting, though I can only find them back to 1991.

    That is the water equivalent of the snow pack at Snowbird in Utah.

    You can select other locations here:

    A lot of the water in the Great Salt Lake is snow melt from the Wasatch Front.

    Here is another site you might like:

    I selected Enterprise, Utah which is on a high plateau Northwest of Saint George in Southern Utah. It is an agricultural area without any major mountain ranges nearby aside from the normal basin and range stuff.

    So you “zoom map to” Enterprise, UT, find it, click it (purple dot) then select the period you would like data for going back to 1905. Enter your start/stop dates, select which fields you want, submit and decide if you want a table or a csv download.

    You can get both snowfall and rainfall data.

  8. Mike Jonas says:

    PS. Since the lake you are looking at is the Great Salt Lake, I should have highlighted the comment in my first post : “It is also reported that Lake Zurich,, Lake Hamun-Sumpf in Persia and the Great Salt Lake have major maxima and minima concurrently with Lake George“.

    That’s a remarkably wide geographical spread for lakes that go up and down together!

  9. Plant Maps says:

    There is an interactive map of current drought conditions in Utah at

  10. Tom Bakewell says:

    Another fine posting!

    For grins it would be fun to look at high resolution bathymetric data in Salt Lake to see if there are any wave cut benches which would show even lower stillstands.

    Lets see here; small boat with trolling motor, recording GPS and a fish finder with some sort of capturable output would work just fine. Might not even have to get any dreaded government permits to do this….

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  12. Tom Bakewell says:

    I found the USGS did a nice looking bathymetric survey of the lake in 2006. I sure see some what look like wave cut terraces below the present lake surface. They are more pronounced in the south half of the lake. I smell a thesis or two here unless that’s already been done.

  13. George says:

    Heh, just wait till Lake Lahontan begins to fill again.

  14. E.M.Smith says:


    OMG! You’re RIGHT!

    I’d known about Lake Lahontan, but learned it when I was very young and anything more than 100 years was all ancient geologic scale history. But, from the wiki:

    At its peak approximately 12,700 years ago (during a period known as the “Sehoo Highstand”), the lake had a surface area of over 8,500 square miles (22,000 km2),[1] with its largest component centered at the location of the present Carson Sink. The depth of the lake was approximately 900 feet (270 m)[2] at present day Pyramid Lake, and 500 feet (150 m) at the Black Rock Desert. Lake Lahontan, during this most recent glacial period, would have been one of the largest lakes in North America.

    As we drop into the coming Glacial, it’s going to refill.

    Just OMG.

    So we can watch The Great Salt Lake as a very direct Ice Age indicator… and watch for rising waters all over Nevada…

    (In a few hundreds or thousands of years ;-)

  15. Baa Humbug says:

    Hi EM
    I have an OT question but didn’t know where to post it.

    You are very good at finding obscure info.

    I was thinking about the fact we don’t have a control planet to test the AGW hypothesis.
    But do you recall, back in the 70’s, bio-domes were built and operated. I think the purpose was to see how well people could sustain themselves if we were to colonise the moon or mars. (I was just a kid at the time)

    I can’t find any information on these domes. They must have kept records (CO2 enhanced food growing, temp control etc)


  16. E.M.Smith says:

    You need to use the search term “Biosphere 2”

    As I remember it, they had a major problem because some unexpected ants moved in an colonized, causing a bunch of “issues” and they really screwed up the CO2 thing from the beginning.

    Against advice, someone dumped a load of compost (or similar) in for “land”. This proceeded to decompose, creating CO2 (not a real problem) but consuming all the oxygen (a very big problem). They ended up constantly adding O2 IIRC.

    At any rate, for a ‘closed’ system it wasn’t very closed…

  17. George says:

    Keep an eye on Pyramid Lake levels, but I don’t know where you might find them listed regularly. One thing, last year they had some awful floods in Fernley where a lot of the Truckee river is diverted from Pyramid Lake and is used for irrigation. A levee broke:

    Truckee River flow rates might also be interesting as might Reno rainfall.

  18. boballab says:


    Instead of looking for the old Biodome scams just take a look at Modern Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines: They are a system that only takes in seawater while they stay submerged for upwards long periods of time:

    On average, the submarines spend 77 days at sea followed by 35 days in-port for maintenance.

    While you are inside a submarine you do have to worry about heat build up , but it is operating equipment and body temperature not CO2 that is the culprit. CO2 levels on Sub get much higher then the atmosphere at large and the crew does not suffer any ill effects.

    Another place to look is the Apollo space program. Watch the film Apollo 13 and remember the CO2 scrubbers?

    Limited available lithium hydroxide (LiOH) for removing carbon dioxide presented a serious problem. The LM’s internal stock of LiOH canisters was not sufficient to support the crew until return, and the remainder was stored in the descent stage, out of reach. The CM had an adequate supply of canisters, but these were incompatible with the LM. Engineers on the ground improvised a way to join the cube-shaped CM canisters to the LM’s cylindrical canister-sockets by drawing air through them with a suit return hose. The astronauts called the jury-rigged device “the mailbox.”[16]

    Remember the Astronauts were freezing and the temperature was going down while the CO2 levels were also rising.

  19. George says:

    From UPI:

    Prolonged heavy rains forced thousands of people to evacuate their flooded homes. Two 11-year-old children and an adult were missing, Newsroom Panama reported online.

    The rains, which forecasters say will hang around for months, damaged Panamanian crops and roads, including the collapse of one to the Centennial Bridge.

    The Panama Canal Authority said for the first time in its 96-year history, transit of ships was “temporarily suspended” because the Alajuela and Gatun lakes were at the highest levels ever recorded, Newsroom Panama said.

    So the Panama Canal is closed because the lakes are too high.

  20. E.M.Smith says:

    @George: WOW! But not totally surprising when you think about it. Added heat transfer off planet via convection / rain so more rain so lakes fill.

    And, IIRC, at the hight of the hot spike in 1998 there were doom stories about the abnormal low rainfall and that the Panama Canal might have to shut down for lack of water to run the locks…

    I think we have a pattern forming here…

    And I’m sure it’s just coincidence that the Dresden Codex of the Maya shows 2012 as a time of great waters falling from the sky… Smart cookies those Maya. New that astronomy had the answer the the cycles of weather.

    I’m confidently going to predict LOTS of rain and flooding at least through 2014, with emphasis on the Maya lands, but also elsewhere…

    That Panama thing might justify it’s own posting…

    And just as a note to myself:

    has a nice report of historical levels where you can set parameters of interest, like month or years.

  21. George says:

    Also there is Australia. They have been having just torrential rain. Much of their wheat crop is feared damaged.

    From AccuWeather:

    In New South Wales, renewed downpours only served to compound ongoing flooding of major west-flowing rivers. The swollen Murrumbidgee river continued to menace Wagga Wagga.

    In northern New South Wales, it was the flooding Namoi River that kept residents of Wee Waa on edge. Emergency services warned 1700 residents to be ready to evacuate.

    News is no better for growers in the region, where most of a bumper wheat crop still awaits harvest in the fields.

    Estimates of loss in wheat quality and yield for the rain-delayed have already topped $1 billion. Losses stem from the effects of water and humidity on the ripened wheat, as well as the flattening of the standing crop (“lodging”) under the battering of wind, rain and even hail.

    So now we can add Australia’s wheat crop to those suffering damage this year. How do I open a bank account denominated in bushels of wheat?

    I guess a cooling atmosphere will precipitate out excess water.

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