What’s going on with the tar at the Great Salt Lake? Scientists explain the natural phenomenon

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Courtesy of Jamii Butler.

CORINNE, Utah (ABC4) – A lot is going on at Rozel Point, located at the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. Spiral Jetty, the iconic earthwork sculpture built in 1970 by Robert Smithson is there, along with some small remnants of the oil drilling that occurred in the region from the 1920s to the 80s.

Looking across the lake, mushroom clouds can sometimes be seen from the bombing range on the other side of the north arm. Combine that with the sight of pelicans flying overhead over the lake, which can sometimes give off a pink hue due to the organisms in the water, and it can be an extremely interesting location.

Courtesy of Utah.gov

The reason why the remote area has gotten more attention recently, however, is the emergence of tar around the shoreline as the water levels of the Great Salt Lake have gotten lower and lower.

There is no reason to be concerned, though; the tar seeps are a completely natural phenomenon, according to Utah Geological Survey spokesperson Mark Milligan. In fact, Milligan says the tar seeps around the Great Salt Lake bear a strong likeness to the famous La Brea Tar Pits in downtown Los Angeles, California.

Of course, as opposed to being in a pit, the tar at the Great Salt Lake is often dispersed throughout the body of water when the level is higher. It’s just more noticeable with a lower water level.

“When the lakes at a higher level, it washes away the seeps. It doesn’t mean the oil is gone, it just means it’s distributed over a wider area. If you go along the shoreline there, you can find lots of rocks covered with the same material but the tar-like substance on the rocks from when the lake was higher,” Milligan explains to ABC4.

But one thing that the tar seeps in Utah share with the tar pits in Hollywood is the presence of animal entrapments in the sticky goo. The animals in Utah are quite smaller than the ones at La Brea, which have been home to discoveries of prehistoric creatures such as mammoths, ground sloths, and saber-tooth cats. The difference is that the discoveries at the L.A.-based tar pit are long gone and have been there for thousands, if not millions of years. Good luck getting a modern mountain lion or other regional animals through the busy urban area of Los Angeles nowadays. The animals being entrapped at the Great Salt Lake provide a look at what current wildlife in the area is like now.

A visitor takes pictures of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California.(Photo from Getty Images)

Among the animals that find their way into the sticky tar at Rozel Point are pelicans, coyotes, mice, owls, and other small animals and bugs, according to lake researcher Jamii Butler. She and her team of students and fellow researchers at Westminster College frequently study the lake, the animals, and the tar using motion-activated cameras aimed at the area. Butler says pelicans, especially younger birds, are the creatures most often captured in the tar’s sticky grasp.

Describing how this happens, Butler explains that the pelicans often send their young out for their first flight from Gunnison Island to Rozel Point to savage for food to bring back to the nest. The inexperienced birds, landing on the shore of the water, waddle out to explore and get stuck in the tar, trapping them there permanently. As they either struggle to escape or leave a carcass later on, coyotes move in for an easy meal and are also caught in the tar, according to Butler.

A pelican attempts to cross the tar at the Great Salt Lake (Courtesy of Jamii Butler)

While it is somewhat sad to witness an animal’s death, Butler explains that due to the natural occurrence of the tar seeps and the dangerous nature of the pelicans’ flight, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has determined not to act. These events are simply considered to be a part of the circle of life.

Besides, there’s not much that can be done to permanently plug these seeps, as Butler explains using a cartoon metaphor that just happens to involve a coyote.

“It’s like watching Wile E. Coyote in front of a dam and Wile E. Coyote puts his finger into the hole and then another hole springs next to him. That’s kind of how these are,” says Butler.

To Butler and other researchers, these tar seeps provide a valuable look at what life is like in an area that doesn’t see much human interaction.

“It’s not like anybody ever wants to see a pelican dead in a tar seep, but it’s a natural hazard that those babies probably would die of dehydration or starvation, and we’re just seeing them being preserved. For us, it’s a really wonderful way to study the ecology of the area.”

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