The Dugway Proving Ground is a vast sprawl of 3,243 square kilometres in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert, south-west of Salt Lake City. Despite the scenic landscape, you do not want to go hiking there: the area has been a military testing ground for chemical and biological weapons since 1942. In 1969 the US renounced first-strike use, but chemical and biological agents are still tested at Dugway to research methods of detection and neutralisation.
Much of what happens within Dugway’s boundaries is so secret that the site has earned quasi-Area 51 status among UFOlogists. But in 2014, following a decade of to-and-fro with government officials, visual artist David Maisel managed to secure access to the Proving Ground and take aerial and on-the-ground photographs. “I did not have to wear any hazmat suit while visiting the site,” Maisel says. On the other hand, he adds, “every site I worked at was vetted. I always had one or more representatives from Dugway with me, even [when taking aerial photos] in the air.”
Satellite images on services such as Google Earth reveals how Dugway’s terrain is dotted with mandala-like circles. Those are, essentially, colossal targets for toxic ordnance, either dropped from the sky or detonated in various ways on the ground. “There’s a number of grids inscribed on the desert floor, where weapons are detonated,” Maisel says. “The desert becomes a measuring device for toxicity: there are, at various points [within those grids], devices measuring toxicity.” These include lidar devices, which use laser light combined with an optic sensor to scan their surroundings. According to a research paper published in 2018 by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, lidar technology was used at Dugway to detect chlorine concentrations in the air during a series of experiments in 2015 and 2016. Maisel himself says he attended an event where Dugway personnel met civilian vendors touting lidar gear.