The most sweeping study so far of the region’s changing climate retraces some familiar terrain for Utahns, and it urges leaders to roll up their sleeves for the challenges ahead.
The new Southwest Climate Assessment urges leaders to get ahead of future trends that will make it tougher to manage natural resources and threats to human health.
Soggy April improved Utah’s snowpack
A wetter-than-usual April boosted Utah’s snowpack last month, bringing it to 72% of normal, said the Natural Resources Conservation Service in its latest water supply outlook.
“April was the month we wished we had for January, February and March,” said the report. “It fished half of the state from the fire back into the frying pan and we are glad for that little bit of improvement over what has been a very dry winter.”
At this point, seasonal precipitation is at 81% of average and soil moisture is slightly lower than last year at 76 percent.
But reservoirs are lower. This year capacity is at 65 percent. Last year at this time it was 86 percent. As the snowmelts and runoff begins in earnest, forecasters predict streamflows will range between 11 and 69 percent of average.
It points to decisions on shifting to clean energy while dealing with a less predictable climate, one with more wildfires and fights over water, forests ravaged by beetles and cities plagued by pollution, and deeper droughts than we’re used to.
"It’s not a switch on-switch off problem," said Suzanne Moser, a lead author on the report’s final chapter, "Climate Choices for a Sustainable Southwest." She said in a conference call that the West can face the challenges ahead with "modest optimism" given its regional personality.
"People in this region have a dogged frontier mentality," she said, "which is incredibly useful if you are headed into an uncertain and unknown future."
The report was released this week after years of fact-gathering and review by 120 experts in the fields of climate science, hydrology, economics, geography, ecology, engineering and other key disciplines. Published by Island Press as a book, it looks at natural variations in climate, as well as the broader issues of accelerated climate change and possible solutions in dealing with it.
The Southwest Assessment is one of 10 that will inform this year’s National Climate Assessment, ordered by Congress in the 1990 Global Change Research Act.
A team headed by the University of Utah’s Jim Steenburgh authored a key chapter, "Present weather and climate: Average conditions.
A just-the facts summary of the climate from the agricultural plains of eastern Colorado, through the canyons and deserts of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona to the coast of California, it included important contributions from fellow Utahns, John D. Horel of the U. and State Climatologist Rob Gillies.
"The climate contrast is enormous," said Steenburgh, hinting at the diversity of the landscapes his group assessed.
Utah is a big puzzle in itself, he noted.
Some of its temperature and precipitation trends come from the Northwest. Markedly different trends come from the Southwest.
"Utah," he said, "sits at this climate crossroads."
Yet another trend his team noted was the important role played by inversions, those times when high-pressure turns valley basins into pollution sinks that make the air unhealthy.
The report comes the week after Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, who is skeptical of the role humans play in accelerating climate change, oversaw his first hearing on the subject as chairman of the House environment subcommittee. It’s also around the time when people concerned about climate change have been noting that a symbolic milestone is about to be reached at the scientific moniters at Mauna Loa: 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the Northern Hemisphere, a level unprecedented in human history.
Gregg Garfin, executive editor of the Southwest Assessment, pointed to emerging trends that are detailed in the report to explain why it is urgent.
"Just look at how rapidly, extensively, from low to high elevation, from every different state in our region, this perfect storm of converging of higher temps, drought, beetle mortality … and fire have ripped through the Southwestern forests," he said in a conference call with reporters.
"These factors causing forest mortality — not just in the Southwest but in the West in general — these are things you can tie in so closely to climate change. If you are looking for the smoking gun, for something that is going to cost us a lot, take a look there."
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