Utah weather forecast this summer is looking grim, experts say

The state, like most of the country, will be hotter and drier than normal as Utahns continue to feel the effects of climate change.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rising heat obscures a cyclist along the North Temple frontage road near the Great Salt Lake on Thursday, May 26, 2022. Utah, like most of the country, will be hotter and drier than normal as Utahns continue to feel the effect of climate change.

Weather across the country this summer will be menacing, riddled with above-normal temperatures, below-normal rainfall and deteriorating drought conditions — which pretty much sums up what meteorologists expect in Utah.

The Beehive State is in the “bull’s eye” for the highest probabilities of above-normal temperatures in June, July and August, said Glen Merrill, senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

“That is something we can expect once again, like we’ve seen the last several years,” Merrill said, citing climate change.

According to the National Weather Service, Salt Lake City’s “normal” high temperatures average 84 degrees in June, 94 in July and 91 in August. In St. George, those averages are 96 degrees in June, 101 in July and 99 in August.

Utah is on track to be even hotter this summer — and drier than normal, even though “normal” is very dry. Salt Lake City typically averages 0.95 of an inch of precipitation in June, 0.49 of an inch in July, and 0.58 of an inch in August.

“Once we get into June, through about mid-July, it’s climatologically the driest period across the region,” Merrill said. “That’s something we can bank on. It’s just what happens on a yearly basis.”

Drought will deepen, despite monsoon rains

Although northern Utah can expect below-average rainfall this summer, southern Utah — at least parts of it — could see above-average rainfall.

“Last summer we had quite an exceptional monsoon surge, especially in July and August, and this year is lining up with similar signals for at least a decent monsoon, especially across southern Utah,” he said. “The question is, how far north does it get?”

Even if all the predictions are wrong and Utah gets above-average rainfall this summer, it won’t do much to alleviate the ongoing drought. The Utah Division of Water Resources reported that on May 24, 99.47% of the state is in severe drought or worse, and 55.67% of Utah is in extreme drought.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pineview Reservoir, a popular recreation spot in Ogden Valley, was just a quarter full as seen on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

“In this state, it’s the winter months when we see the bulk of the precipitation,” Merrill said. Between 90-95% of the state’s water supply comes from winter snow and spring runoff. “While it snowed more this past winter than the year before, it was still below average.”

According to the Division of Water Resources, the 2021-22 snowpack peaked at 12 inches of snow-water equivalent (the amount of water that would result if the snow melted) — just 75% of the normal total, 16 inches.

“We started off the season with a bang from October through December,” he said. “And then January and February was one of the driest periods on record, especially in our mountains. … It’s going to take a couple of years of above-normal precipitation during the winter months to completely pull us out of this.”

It isn’t helping that this year’s snowpack is melting earlier and more quickly than usual. “We hit peak snowpack about two weeks earlier than normal,” Merrill said — around March 25, instead of April 7-10. “And we’re losing that snow at a faster rate.”

The snowpack is expected to be gone two to three weeks earlier than normal. “And the earlier that happens, the longer that hot, dry season,” he said.

More flash flooding?

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mario Capecchi Drive on the campus of the University of Utah is closed due to flooding in Salt Lake City, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021.

While there is a good chance of rain and thunderstorms this summer, flash flooding risk is more “hit-and-miss, and very localized,” Merrill said.

In 2021, flash flooding struck across the state — including in Cedar City, Hanksville, Enoch, Zion National Park, Salt Lake City and more. One flash flood derailed a train in Iron County, and another killed a man at a mine in Emery County.

“We have similar conditions setting up this year,” Merrill said.

That could mean even more flash flooding, particularly in southern Utah. “It’s something we have to watch out for,” he said.

Wildfire danger

In June, fire potential will be above normal, especially in southern Utah, according to the National Weather Service.

The highest danger is in the higher elevations of central and southern Utah “due to drought concerns still in place,” according to the Great Basin Coordination Center, which coordinates firefighting efforts in Utah, Nevada and parts of Idaho and Wyoming.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews fight the Parleys Canyon Fire on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.

There is a bit of good news: Although many Utah mountains, particularly in the northern part of the state, are looking green right now, “fine fuel loading” — the growth of grasses that will dry out and provide fuel for wildfires — is lower than in recent years, according to the GBCC.

That means, in most areas, there will be “very little fine fuel carryover” into the 2022 fire season.

However, the concern this year is more for the larger fuels, Merrill said.

“Timber the size of your arm or leg — those are the things that, throughout this drought period, have continued to dry out on a yearly basis,” he continued. “And they also carry fire better, especially in the upper elevations.”

The high potential for wildfires will extend into northern Utah in July and August, “but there’s lower potential for significant wildfires across the south as we get more into the monsoon months,” Merrill said.

Potential downpours — and flooding — could actually end up helping firefighters battle blazes in parts of the state this summer. “The one thing that we’re hoping for this year is to get enough of those thunderstorms across southern Utah and central Utah to help squelch wildfire potential,” Merrill said.

The hydrologist said he is usually the optimistic sort. But he struggled to sound upbeat about the weather Utah faces this summer.

“There really isn’t too much positive to talk about right now regarding our drought conditions and this year’s water supply. Other than it isn’t quite as bad as last year,” he said. “But, yeah, it was really bad last year.”