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Drought, other climate cycles settling into Utah

Published May 10, 2013 9:26 pm

Weather • Expert notes global patterns impact state, now in a six-year dry period.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Drought will probably dog the state for a few more years, thanks to broad climate patterns being tracked by the Utah Climate Center.

Rob Gillies, director of the climate center and speaker Friday at the latest Utah State University Sunrise Session, pointed to scientific research his team has done in recent years on global patterns of precipitation and temperature — cycles that play out over thousands of miles and reverberate in Utah.

He likened the climate system to a symphony, with rhythms or "voices" that ebb and flow, staccato to legato, over weeks, years, decades and even centuries.

"These voices," he said, "are pulsing through our climate system and affect our climate in various ways."

Patterns like these explain the rare convergence of climate cycles that led to the 1983 floods. They also hint at such short-term weather events as the high-pressure systems that drive valley inversions in northern Utah.

They also point to climate cycles traced to the western Pacific that appear closely tied to droughts that follow a predictable 12-year cycle, Gillies said. Utah is now in the second year of the six-year dry period, he said.

He also told how climate models project that the West will continue to warm and shift precipitation patterns so there is less spring snow. Increased rain means a water-supply network based on capturing mountain snow might better shift to one that makes better use of rain.

"There are consequences," said Gillies, "and society will have to change its practices if those scenarios prove true."

Gillies' audience at the Little America hotel included state officials, including Kevin Carter of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration and Gov. Gary Herbert's environmental adviser, Alan Matheson. Environmental watchdogs like the Citizens Climate Alliance and the League of Women Voters of Utah were also on hand.

In a lengthy Q&A session, Gillies addressed some common misconceptions about climate change, such as the notion that natural sun cycles are causing the planet to warm (the scientific evidence does not support that view, he noted) and that a flat trend in temperatures proves that the world is not getting warmer (merely one data point in a body of science that tracks multiple trends that show rapid warming is underway).

Silvia Smith, just wrapping up her first year as a USU mechanical engineering student, came away from the talk with a little less skepticism and more understanding of an unfamiliar branch of science.

"I think the science is undeniable," she said, adding that people should be talking more about its possible impacts and scientists from many fields should be working together on it.

"It's more scientific," she said, "than a theory or a postulation."

And her father, also a mechanical engineer, liked the idea that the Climate Center's pattern tracking can be used as a practical tool for, say, managing water supplies or helping people in climate-challenged areas adapt to changing climate.

"It's actionable," he said. "Value-added."

fahys@sltrib.com

Twitter: @judyfutah