Predictions in decade-old report come true as Utah sees bigger storms, warmer temperatures

Posted at 6:18 AM, Nov 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-04 09:02:07-04

SALT LAKE CITY - Bigger storms, warmer winters and hotter summers: Are these natural coincidences or evidence of something else?

A report prepared for Governor Huntsman a decade ago made some predictions about warming in Utah.

Jim Steenburgh, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Utah, was one of its authors. An increase in heat waves was among the predictions in the report.

“And so 2015 was the hottest year on record globally,” Steenburgh said. “And then that’s going to be broken by 2016, it looks pretty likely a virtual lock that this is going to happen.”

Utah is not immune to the trend. In 2013 we had the warmest summer on record, and the winter from 2014-2015 was the warmest winter on record. In 2016 we saw the second warmest summer on record, with 21 days where temperatures rose above 95 degrees.

Steenburgh's predictions on warming were spot on. Another prediction was that Utah would be seeing more heavy precipitation events separated by longer dry spells.

State Hydrologist Brian McInerny said he’s noticed weather patterns that match that prediction.

“We’ve seen 200-year events every year, that’s only roughly 0.5 percent chance [of happening}," he said. "So the storms are not as frequent, yet we have generally the same amount of precipitation in the mountains. When they do get here, they’re kind of wild, and then we have longer periods without any storminess."

McInerny was not one of the authors of the original report, but he says today's evidence supports the report’s claims.

“Last year in September we had 21 people die of a single thunderstorm complex that moved through Hildale and Zion National Park and caused flash flooding on a scale and fatality rate that we haven't seen before,” he said.

A third prediction in the report was that more precipitation would fall as rain instead of snow. Doctor Court Strong, a professor at the University of Utah, uses high-tech computer models to track precipitation.

“At some of the lower elevations we do see a decline in the snowpack,” he said.

His research indicates we are still in the beginning stages of this transition. But because of warming, less precipitation comes as snow. Once it's on the ground, the snow that does fall melts earlier and faster.

With more rain and less snow, that’s somewhat concerning for Steenburgh. So, will Utah need to change its slogan on snow?

“I don’t know about that,” Steenburgh said. "The good news for us is that we will probably still have better than average skiing compared to everybody else around the world."

Joking aside, water quality compromised by climate change has already caused serious problems in Utah. The warming trend has had side effects, including increased algal abundance in lakes and rivers. That's another outcome predicted by the report.

“It was a record breaking summer for heat in Utah, and we started to see algal bloom,” McInerney said.

And it wasn't just in the low valley lakes, it was in the high mountain lakes, a potential source of our drinking water.

“It’s not something you want in your water supply,” McInerney said of the algal blooms.