The Bonneville Salt Flats is a famous area of white salt crystals in the American state of Utah. The area is so flat that on some days, people say they can see the curvature of the Earth.
The area has served as a place for racers to set land speed world records and for filmmakers to make movies like Independence Day and The World’s Fastest Indian.
But the ground of the area is growing thinner and thinner. Those who love the area are demanding changes to save it.
In the last 60 years, the ground has become thinner by about one-third. And the area of the Salt Flats has shrunk to about half of its largest size in 1994.
The Salt Flats has a special ground that keeps car tires cool at high speeds and provides a perfect surface for racing. But racers say it is difficult to find a space long enough to reach record speeds like they did many years ago. Recently, race organizers had to cancel “Speed Week” events scheduled for this autumn after the Salt Flats flooded and left racers without enough space to drive on.
Research has shown that the salty water in the aquifer – the layer of rock or sand that holds water below the flats - is decreasing quickly.
Scientists largely agree that years of aquifer use by nearby potash mining has been one cause behind the problem. Still, scientists say that there is no hard evidence that paying the mining company to return water to the area will solve the issue. This is because other human activities – such as taking other kinds of minerals and driving racecars – also have effects on the land.
Officials are paying for a new study as they try to find a solution. Researchers are trying to understand why the salt is decreasing and what can be done to stop it. Under a $1 million research project headed by the Utah Geographical Study, scientists are gathering information to understand the effects that climate change, racing and mining have on the Salt Flats.
Dennis Sullivan is a car builder and racer who set a land speed record in his 1927 Model T car. His group, the Salt Flats Racing Association, believes the potash mining company that takes minerals from the flats is the main reason for the aquifer decline.
But he and other racers blame the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area.
To save the area, Sullivan says, the U.S. government needs to find $50 million over 10 years to pay Intrepid Potash, the mining company, to pour salty water it has drawn from the land back onto the flats. He does not like seeing more time and money spent on research when, to him, the solution is clear.
“In the world I came from, you study something, you figure out what changes you need to make, you make the changes and then you go back and study it again to see if your changes had an effect on it,” Sullivan said.
Although racers say the answer is clear, scientists believe that there is no hard evidence that simply returning salty water will reverse the bad effects on the Flats.
A 2016 study found that the areas most likely to thin were places where races are organized. In simple terms, races might change how water flows through the ground, said Jeremiah Bernau of the Utah Geological Survey.
“Every use is going to have some sort of” effect on the land, Bernau suggested. He added, “My work is trying to understand how is that working and what are the actions that we can do in terms of helping to preserve this landscape."
I’m Ashley Thompson.
Sam Metz and Brady McCombs reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
curvature –n. : the amount that something is curved
potash – n. a form of potassium that is used especially to improve soil or to make soap
reverse – v. to change (something) to an opposite state or condition
preserve – v. to keep (something) in its original state or in good condition
landscape – n. an area of land that has a particular quality or appearance