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Megadrought may trigger ‘catastrophe’ with arsenic ‘death cloud’, boffins warn

3 min read

A 'catastrophe' could be triggered through a drastic megadrought and unleash arsenic into the air.

A megadrought causing havoc on the west coast of the US is causing devastating wildfires and regions to declare states of emergency.

Water levels in America's 'Dead Sea' are at their lowest in the past 500 years and boffins are warning the knock-on effects could pose a threat to our health.

Levels in Utah's Great Salt Lake are also nearly at a record 58-year low, and sit nine feet lower than the average.

Scientists warn wildlife could be affected for several years after the drought, with an entire ecosystem at risk.

Kevin Perry, chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah explained the threat is not just for animals who thrive in the water.

He told CNN, that as the drought continues to dry out Utah's soil, arsenic found there could be picked up by the wind and moved along.

The arsenic in the air could cause respiratory issues for humans.

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Arsenic, a toxin, often washes downstream after winds pick it up, and lands in the lake.

He warned: "Fifteen to 20 years ago, when the lake was higher, most of these dust spots were covered up, and if you cover them up with water, they don't produce dust. And so as the lake has receded, it's exposed more and more of that lake bed. … As we get the larger area, we have more frequent dust storms."

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He urged that the lake could become one of the "larger dust emission sources" in the country.

Ecology researcher Jaimi Butler added: 'We're on the doorstep of a catastrophe," as water is being diverted from the lake to ranches, farms, and cities.

At the bottom of the lake sits microbialites, or 'living rocks', food sources for brine flies and shrimp – but they're at risk of drying up within weeks, warns Utah's Department of Natural Resources.

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Although they may die off in only a matter of weeks, it actually takes several years for them to recover, says Michael Vanden Berg, from the Utah Geological Survey.

Not only that, it's America's most common bird breeding spot, with more than 300 varieties at the lake.

The impacts of the microbialites will be felt up the food chain, warns Dr Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College.

The body of water called America's 'Dead Sea', is the largest salt water body in the western hemisphere.

It's bigger than Jordan's Rift Valley which sits in the Middle East.

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