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Climate change ravaged the West last year and 2021 could be worse

‘We’ve got a pretty deep hole that 2020 has dug for us.’

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This Jan. 6, 2021, file photo shows limited snowfall in Big Cottonwood Canyon where south facing slopes showed bare spots. Already in the grip of a stubborn drought, Utah, along with the entire Intermountain West, is facing what looks to be another bleak water year as climate change settles into the region.

If there were any doubts that the climate is changing in the Colorado River Basin, 2020 went a long way toward dispelling them, thanks to yet another year of extreme weather.

Unprecedented wildfires, deadly heat waves and withering drought ravaged the landscape, claiming dozens of lives and causing billions of dollars in damage. They’re among the many markers of the climate mayhem that scientists have been warning about for years.

While Colorado and California were ablaze and the heat killed more people in Arizona than ever before, Utah experienced its driest year on record. Monsoon rains that typically bring relief throughout the region were a no-show for the second summer in a row and now are being called the “non-soon.”

And, although the final climate data for 2020 just arrived and the new year is just weeks old, forecasters are already filled with apprehension about what lies ahead for the West this year.

“We’ve got a pretty deep hole that 2020 has dug for us,” said Jon Meyer, research climatologist for the Utah Climate Center who points to low soil moisture, high temperatures and other measures of a hotter, drier climate. “Even a good year is not going to break us out of that.”

From the California coast to the eastern borders of Colorado and New Mexico, 2021 is beginning with virtually all of the Colorado River Basin in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, conditions that haven’t been eased by this winter’s snowfall. Forecasters talk about a “snow drought” because the snowpack is so poor and snow cover across the West is lower than at any time over the past two decades. This year Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reservoir, is expected to receive just half as much runoff as usual.

[Read more: Hedge funds eye water markets that could net billions, as levels drop in Lake Powell]

Little rain, but a ‘lot of hot air’

The Intermountain West has been drying up for almost a year.

Across the region, rainfall was the second lowest on record last year and the lowest since 1956, according to government climate data. Utah received just 55 percent of normal rainfall for 2020. Then, at the beginning of this year, all but 10 percent of the state met the standard for dire “extreme” or “exceptional” drought that stresses wildlife and plants to the edge of survival.

(Inside Climate News) This map shows the worsening drought throughout the Intermountain West as the impacts of climate change continue piling up with higher temperatures, parched soils and the two-year absence of monsoon rains.

“Whatever [snow] we do get, when it comes time to melt in the spring, it’s just going to soak right into the ground,” said Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist. “The ground is so dry, it’s just gonna suck it up. We’re not going to get a lot of good runoff, and we’re not going to get a lot of good streamflow, reservoir infill or any of that kind of stuff, so we’re concerned.”

She pointed out that instead of monsoon rains that raise humidity and lower temperatures through the summer, high-pressure and high temperatures were relentless for the second year in a row.

Salt Lake City experienced its sixth warmest year. Utah’s average annual temperature statewide last year was 55.7 degrees Fahrenheit — 2.5 degrees higher than the annual average and fifth hottest since record-keeping began in 1875. While usually just four days a year exceed 100 degrees, Utah sweltered through 15 of them last year.

Dozens of deaths, billions in damage

Heat turned out to be the biggest factor in weather and climate related deaths in a dozen Western and Central states last year, according to the latest national billion-dollar disasters tally. The drought and heat wave caused 45 deaths — most of them heat-related, said Adam Smith, who collects the data for the National Centers for Environmental Information, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA].

Smith’s analysis is fast becoming a key metric in measuring the impacts of climate change. It compiles the costs in property damage and human lives. And, while some of the trend is tied to growing populations and more assets in harm’s way, the increased frequency of extreme weather is also a cause, much of it driven by global warming. Last year the tally detailed $95 billion in costs tied to 22 events, the largest number of billion-dollar disasters recorded since NOAA began the list in 1980.

Smith said the estimate includes a broad range of quantifiable costs, such as damage to commercial and residential properties, crop losses, increased feeding costs for livestock and spending on fighting wildfires.

“It’s a conservative but solid estimate,” he said, adding that many billions of dollars and dozens of lives were lost due to firestorms in several Western states.

“As striking as that $95 billion figure is, I think it’s really important that we remember that the human toll of climate and weather disasters is profound,” said Vijay Limaye, an epidemiologist who studies the health consequences of climate change for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s staggering, and it’s widespread.”

He said extreme heat poses acute risks to human health not just through premature mortality from heatstroke, but also through a number of other health problems that aren’t fully measured by the billion-dollar disaster statistics. The health care-related costs of the wildfire smoke that shrouded skies across the West last summer and fall are not included, even though the smoke triggers heart and lung problems and is sometimes blamed for premature death. Nor are the little-understood mental health consequences of drought counted, he said.

A thirstier atmosphere sucks up moisture from soil, trees

Jeff Lukas, an independent climate consultant in Colorado, said the world’s rapid warming is making the atmosphere thirstier “and that is so apparent in the second half of 2020.” Dry years can happen in the absence of climate change, he said. But the atmosphere’s capacity to hold more water, which leads it to suck moisture from the soil, trees and snowpack, has increased significantly in response to what might seem like an insignificant amount of warming — about 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

“What [last year] will be mostly remembered for, from a weather and climate perspective, is how things dried out so much in the summer and fall as a result of both low precipitation and very high temperatures,” said Lukas, who tracked climate and weather events at the Western Water Assessment for more than a decade. The dryness resulted in the “kind of fuel conditions and fire weather that led to those incredible wildfires in August and September.”

For Lukas, one daylong period of extreme fire behavior last year stands out: when Colorado’s East Troublesome Fire ran 20 miles, blowing up from 18,000 acres to 180,000 acres, eventually jumping over the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park. What now stands as the second-largest blaze in state history came in October, a month that is normally cool and moist.

“To see it in real-time, and to know that thousands of your fellow citizens are urgently trying to get themselves and their animals out of the path of this incredibly fast moving, incredibly dangerous fire, it is just stomach-churning to watch it happen.”

Meyer, the Utah Climate Center researcher, said he’s having more conversations lately about the role of climate change with people who used to shrug off the trends.

“What we’ve seen play out over the last year or half decade is certainly a signal of climate change,” he said.

“We’re certainly loading the dice for these kinds of events,” he said, noting that last year was the first time Utah officials issued a fire warning as late as November. “It fits the bill exactly for what we expect to happen as a result of our influence on the greenhouse effect and land management and all these other conditions of climate change.”

2021 set up for more heat and drought

No one’s started using the word “scary” yet, but all reports seem to suggest 2021 could bring more of the same, that a “forever drought” may be settling in.

  • The snowpack for the Colorado River’s four Upper Basin states — Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico — is 67 percent of average. That puts this year on par so far with 2018, which went on to be a terrible year for wildfire, drought and heat.

  • With reservoirs already low, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently nudged those states to prepare for implementing the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan so Lake Powell can continue to meet the demands of the 40 million people who rely on Colorado River water next year.

  • The water that’s flowed into Lake Powell since October is 44 percent of what’s normally expected.

  • Drought is forecast to persist into spring, and odds are that Colorado River Basin states will remain warmer and drier than normal, too.

“There really isn’t any good news for water resources in the Colorado River Basin right now, which is raising a lot of red flags coming into the upcoming year,” Meyer said.

He added that “we’re not totally sunk yet” and said the snowpack has a few months to build before warmer weather begins. But, if recent trends continue into Spring, then the pain farmers and ranchers felt last year will expand across the region, and urban communities will suffer, too.

This story was originally published by InsideClimate News, an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers energy, climate and the environment.

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