2018 was a record year for Utah, and not a record it wanted. According to the NOAA, since records began in 1895 Utah has never experienced a year with as little precipitation as it did in 2018 and only one previous year has registered higher average temperatures, reports the Salt Lake Tribune.
For the water year that ended Sept. 30, Utah led the nation in terms of its relative dryness over the past 123 years. When it came to hot weather, they trailed only neighbors Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. The impact can be seen in falling levels of these states’ reservoirs, disappearing streams and toxic algal blooms. Many of Utah’s largest reservoirs and lakes are half full.
“The desert Southwest getting hotter faster than the global average has to do with the lack of moisture in the desert,” said Brian McInerney, a Salt Lake City-based hydrologist with the National Weather Service. “You can assimilate this to someone who is exercising. If they drank enough water, they are perspiring. Then they quit sweating and go into heat prostration.”
Scientists blame global warming trends on mounting accumulations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A new report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the environmental impacts are piling up faster than anticipated. If greenhouse-gas emissions continue at the present rate, the Earth will warm by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040, leading to even more intense drought in places and coastal cities getting flooded by rising sea levels.
For Utah, it could mean a dangerous reduction in mountain snowpacks and the demise of a world-class ski industry. What was considered a dry season in the past can be considered “normal” now. Drought is currently taking its biggest toll in Utah’s southeastern corner where the Colorado Plateau is experiencing the driest conditions on record, prompting some counties to declare emergencies and to seek relief for agricultural producers.
“What we have noticed is the storms that are coming out of the Pacific Northwest, our bread and butter for water supply, are coming less frequently,” McInerney said, “but when they get here they are more intense.”
He noted that every month since 2012 has been relatively dry, except for December 2016 and January 2017 when snow and rain were three to four times normal. But last week, just a few days into the new water year, Utah’s precipitation went from nonexistent to almost nonstop thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Rosa, which pushed deep into the American Southwest.
“That energy moved the weather pattern we previously had out. It muscled it out of the way and that changed the dynamic of how storms work. The question is is that going to continue through the winter months,” McInerney said. “It is a nice change. We’ll see if it lasts.”