Effects of a century of mining and industrial production on metal contamination of a model saline ecosystem, Great Salt Lake, Utah

Wayne Wurtsbaugh*, Peter Leavitt, Katrina Moser

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
18 Downloads (Pure)


Effects of mining and metals production have been reported in freshwater lake sediments from around the world but are rarely quantified in saline lake sediments, despite the importance of these lake ecosystems. Here we used dated sediment cores from Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA, a large saline lake adjacent to one of the world’s largest copper mines, to measure historical changes in the deposition of 22 metals. Metal concentrations were low prior to the onset of mining in the catchment in 1860 CE. Concentrations of copper, lead, zinc, cadmium, mercury and other metals began increasing in the late 1800s, with peaks in the 1950s, concomitant with enhanced mining and smelting activities. Sedimentary metal concentrations in the 1950s were 20-40-fold above background levels for copper, lead,silver and molybdenum. Concentrations of most metals in surficial sediments have decreased 2-5-fold, reflecting: 1)storage and mineralization of sedimenting materials in a deep brine layer, reducing metal transport to the sediments;2) improved pollution control technologies, and; 3) reduction in mining activity beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite reductions, concentrations of many metals in surficial sediments remain above acceptable contamination thresholds for aquatic ecosystems with migratory birds, and consumption advisories for mercury have been placed on three waterfowl species. The research also highlights that metal deposition in saline lakes is complicated by effects of hypersaline brines and deep-water anoxia in regulating sediment redox and release of metals to surface waters. Given the importance of saline lakes to migratory birds, metals contamination from mining and metals production should be a focus of saline lake remediation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number115072
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jul 2020


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