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The School of UnLearning: Activism
Activism

Meet the Microbialites

Great Salt Lake's Living Rocks at Risk

By J.T. Alvarez


They’re not fuzzy, cuddly, or adorably helpless, but these endangered organisms still deserve your attention.
Panda rolling down a grassy slope


The Great Salt Lake is home to one of the most extensive groupings of microbialites on Earth. These living, microbial reefs embody one of the oldest extant life forms with fossil records dating their existence as far back as the Precambrian era, the earliest age of Earth’s history. For billions of years, extensive tracts of microbial reefs dominated our planet's shallow waters. They’re rare in the modern age, existing only in a few extreme environments like hot springs and hypersaline water - like Great Salt Lake.

Microbialites power Great Salt Lake’s ecosystems. Formed by layers of sediment, light-absorbing bacteria, and algae, microbialites’ ability to photosynthesize maintains the water’s pH levels and even stores carbon captured from the air. They are a critical link in Great Salt Lake’s food chain too, feeding countless other microorganisms as well as brine shrimp and flies. In turn, brine shrimp and flies feed millions of shore and migratory birds that rely on the lake as a food source and breeding grounds.

Image of exposed and dried microbialites at Great Salt Lake by Chandler Rosenberg

Their loss could trigger a cascade of food shortages, affecting a wide array of life at the lake and unfortunately, the death of the microbialites is already underway. The drying lake bed has exposed many microbialites (who thrive near the water’s surface), drying the structures until they can no longer support life. Their deaths are just one of many disastrous effects of decades of water diversions, over-consumption, and climate change, all exacerbated by outdated water policy.


"[EXPOSURE] MAY HAVE LASTING, UNPREDICTABLE CONSEQUENCES FOR THE MICROBIALITE POPULATION FOR YEARS TO COME, EVEN IF LAKE LEVELS RETURN TO HIGHER LEVELS IN SUBSEQUENT YEARS."

- MICHAEL VANDEN BERG, UTAH GEOLOGICAL SURVEY ENERGY & MINERALS PROGRAM MANAGER

 Photo of person crouching near dried microbialites at Great Salt Lake by Chandler Rosenberg

"EVERYONE KNOWS ABOUT [THE LAKE'S] BRINE SHRIMP, BUT THESE THINGS ARE MORE IMPORTANT IN THE ECOLOGICAL PICTURE."

- DR. BONNIE BAXTER, GREAT SALT LAKE INSTITUTE DIRECTOR


Microbialites are a point of interest in multiple fields of study like astrobiology, paleontology, and biotechnology. Evidence of microbialite-like structures have been found in dried lake beds on Mars, offering insight on what life on other planets might look like. Their presence on Earth has been linked to nearby petroleum systems, piquing the interest of energy industries. And their unique microbial composition could further efforts at carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to improve air quality and lessen the effects of extreme weather patterns.

Photo of a hand holding up part of a dried microbialite at Great Salt Lake, by Chandler Rosenberg

The living rocks of Great Salt Lake, which cover roughly 20% of its lake bed, are just one of many organisms that rely on Utah's terminal waters. Protecting them is not only the right but the responsibility of Utahns, with the future of the state's habitability depending on the lake's continued existence and robustness. As North America's only source of magnesium and providing nearly half of the world's harvest of brine shrimp used for aquaculture, Great Salt Lake contributes over $1 billion to Utah's economy per annum. Its loss could cost Utah twice that every year in jobs and commerce and rising healthcare costs due to the dry lake bed's toxic dust.

Rafiki from The Lion King presents Simba at Pride Rock while 'Circle of Life' plays

The state of microbialites at Great Salt Lake exemplifies the need for balance, or homeostasis, in all ecosystems. The survival of an entire system can be jeopardized by disrupting or removing even a single element or organism, setting off a chain of uncontrollable - and at times, unpredictable - reactions. Whether it’s a lake, a community of people, or your skin’s biome, all life relies on symbiotic relationships. It’s simply a fact of nature: when we take care of each other, we take care of ourselves. 


What You Can Do for the Microbialites

  • Show elected officials that Utah cares about the lake! Reach out to government officials and ask them to prioritize water conservation and saving the Great Salt Lake's precious ecosystems. Use this map to identify local representatives who are accountable to you, their constituent.
  • Learn more about the history of Great Salt Lake and the Indigenous tribes - like the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation - who have lived sustainably on its shores for generations.
  • Follow @saveourgreatsaltlake and @utahriverscouncil on Instagram for news and updates about the lake.
  • Sign Save Our Great Salt Lake's petition to legislators showing support for Great Salt Lake here.
  • And support the Utah Rivers Council's mission of water conservation and responsible stewardship by donating.

All microbialite photos taken by Chandler Rosenberg.


About the Author

J.T. Alvarez is a writer and editor for CRUDE and its educational hub, SOUL, the School of UnLearning. Find them on Instagram or Twitter @judeanism.

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