Salton Sea Scents: What’s that smell?

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Algae overtaking the Salton Sea due to high nutrient load(eutrophic conditions). Source: https://desertsearat.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/algal-blooms-fish-die-offs-oh-my/

In the past few months the Salton Sea has been putting off a worrisome odor with increasing frequency. The smell has been strong enough that the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD)[1] has issued odor warnings to people living in the immediate area. For residents of the Coachella Valley, the key questions here are, “What makes the Salton Sea stink?” and “Is that smell dangerous?”

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Salton Sea Food: Tasty Tilapia

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The Salton Sea in the 1930's Source: greetingsfromsaltonsea.com
The Salton Sea in the 1930’s Source: http://www.greetingsfromsaltonsea.com/

The Salton Sea has been many things to a lot of people. It has been a piece of post-apocalyptic landscape, an artist’s muse, and a lesson on water management and habitat restoration. At one point, it was a hot spot for vacations and was even one of the hottest fisheries in California. Imagine that, the Salton Sea as it is now once had enough fish in it that you could catch them without bait. Now, not so much, but that does not mean you cannot fish at the Salton Sea. There are even groups such as the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association that advocate fishing at the Salton Sea as a wholesome means of entertainment.

So the pressing question on everyone’s mind is “Can I eat fish from the Salton Sea?” More precisely, “Will eating fish from the Salton Sea kill me?”

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A Dusty Future

A drying sea

What happens if the Salton Sea dries up?

The climate in the area will shift, making winter more difficult for farmers in the area. The birds will have no place to rest along their migratory routes. However, most worrisome of all is the impact the drying sea can have on human health.

First, let’s imagine the scale of the Salton Sea. It is visible from orbit, shaped like a footprint in the sand, spread out over 343 square miles (889 km2). That is almost the size of Hong Kong and big enough to fit Manhattan Island ten times over. Now imagine that it has become a dry lakebed with very fine soil, perfect for being carried on the high winds common in the area. In the desert of Southern California, a sea of sand and gravel, more dusty space doesn’t seem like much of a concern. The major difference lies in the makeup of the dust and the sand. In the desert, the sand is made of silica and calcium carbonate, having the potential to clog up the lungs and irritate mucous membranes. In short, normal sand might give you a bad cough, but little else. In the case of the Salton Sea, dust can turn into a more serious health hazard.
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