The Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere at 75 miles long and 28 miles wide. Should a plane go down or a boat capsize on those waters the potential search area would be larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Those were just some of the statistics given out by the Great Salt Lake Harbormaster Dave Shearer during a recent training with Box Elder County’s Search and Rescue and Scuba teams. He said his Division of Natural Resources Great Salt Lake Marina team is highly trained in search and rescue operations, with about 50 total years experience, and is usually able to handle the regular rescues of stranded or distressed boaters or swimmers (about three a month). But incidents requiring additional outside help like a private or commercial plane down in the water or an accident involving multiple vessels would necessitate bringing local rescue personnel into the picture. Knowing the makeup of the Great Salt Lake is vital, he added.
Shearer said the only thing predictable about the Great Salt Lake is its unpredictability. Currents on the lake can be as little as a half knot or as powerful as three, with the strongest being in the spring and summer. Those currents (there are four major ones) play a significant role in search and rescue efforts.
Military helicopters make regular flights over the Great Salt Lake and Shearer said in 1992, one crashed, killing 12 and critically injuring one. The body of the last airman recovered was found less than a day later nearly 30 miles from the crash site near the Lakeside Beach, having drifted in the strong current.
Winds on the lake can also prove erratic, Shearer continued. Three types of winds blow up on the water and include morning and afternoon thermal winds, frontals and monsoonal thunderstorms and downdrafts. Frontals are more common October through May and bring large, violent waves. These winds create a pattern locally known as “Tooele Twisters,” like a mini hurricane with gusts up to 90 mph. Such winds can destroy a boat caught on the water. Waterspouts and tornadoes have also been spotted but are much less common, he said.
In January and February, the Great Salt Lake is hit with Valentine Storms – extremely powerful winds with record gusts that have overturned large sailboats and tor out docks. The top gust ever reported on the lake was 214 mph in 2005, according to Shearer. The strongest this year was a 120 mph gust in mid-February. Monsoonal patterns arrive in June and stick around until September, bringing microbursts and short-lived thunderstorms.
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