SALT LAKE CITY — No, you're not imagining it, some showers and thunderstorms moved into Utah on Wednesday and the forecast calls for more to close out the workweek.
The storms won't lift Utah out of its ongoing extreme and exceptional drought by any means, but meteorologists believe they will produce measurable rain for the first time in a while and that's a good thing. May 23 was the last time the National Weather Service's Salt Lake City station received more than a trace of rain, while its Cedar City station last received more than a trace of rain on May 17.
Both stations report precipitation totals of over 5 inches below normal for this point in the water year, which began Oct. 1.
The storms also offer hope that southern Utah's monsoonal patterns will return this summer. The only problem with the storms, however, is the lightning-producing storms have the potential to spark new wildfires and there's also a possibility for flash floods, especially Thursday and Friday.
Welcome back, rain
The storms from this system are coming from a pattern moving into Utah from the south, said KSL meteorologist Grant Weyman. He said the storms are producing "light to moderate" rainfall, especially in southern Utah, Wednesday. Showers and thunderstorms are also forecast across Utah on Thursday and Friday, with storms centered closer to northeastern Utah by the end of the workweek.
"More to come. More clouds, slightly high humidities and some rain — just what we need, it's been so hot and dry and, of course, on the breezy side as well," Weyman said.
Alex Desmet, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the storms are expected to only produce less than one-tenth of an inch for most areas that get rain; however, there could be heavy rainfall in some localized areas, mostly on Thursday, where 0.10 to 0.25 inches of rain may fall. Most of the rain is expected to fall in higher-terrain areas.
The downside is the storms have the potential to produce lightning and strong winds. Matched with dry vegetation across Utah, there's a potential for new wildfire starts.
"Typically, when thunderstorms are wet, the heavy rains can extinguish any fire that starts by lightning, but right now with the fuels being so dry, the concern is even with rainfall, any fires that do start as a result of lightning may be less able to (be extinguished by the rain)," Desmet said.
Have outdoor plans Thursday? Live near a recent burn scar? Some thunderstorms may contain heavy rain Thursday afternoon and evening.— NWS Salt Lake City (@NWSSaltLakeCity) June 23, 2021
✔️Monitor future forecasts for updated information
✔️Know the flash flood risk for your destination or hike. Have alternate plans! #utwxpic.twitter.com/lJYE5B3UMN
There's also a possibility for flash flooding, though Desmet said it's not expected to be a "high threat." The National Weather Service tweeted out a graphic that called for a "probable" chance for flash floods across all five of Utah's national parks as well as a handful of other big Utah recreational areas Thursday. That means the weather service expects flash flooding at some slot canyons, dry washes and small streams.
There could also be flash floods near recent fire burn scars.
A monsoonal omen? Still too soon to tell
This week's storm system appears like the traditional monsoon pattern, but unfortunately, it doesn't mean the normal southern Utah monsoon season, which was absent last year, will return in 2021.
"It's certainly an initial push of moisture from the south (but it's) a little too early to say that this is the start of the monsoon season," Desmet said. "Really, it's just a favorable flow pattern right now with the southwest flow that's in place. We have a high-pressure area off to our east, a low pressure off to our northwest, so it's forcing the southerly flow to set up and bring in some enhanced moisture from the south up into the Great Basin."
The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center's three-month outlook, through September, still projects an "equal chance" of normal precipitation across southwest Utah, while the remainder of Utah is projected to continue to be drier than average through the end of the 2021 water year. The projections are based on different variables that could change, but it means that experts still don't know if the monsoon patterns will return this year, especially in the areas of equal chance.
Desmet said there are "some indications" more rain will return to Utah at the start of July and the July 4 weekend, but that's still preliminary and it's unclear how organized it will be. That system may provide the best indication yet regarding the monsoon season.
"We'll have to watch for those hints of initial moisture surges late next week to see if that can develop into any sustained monsoonal moisture push," he said. "But at this point, the odds (of a monsoon season) could go in either direction. We'll have a better idea as we get closer."
The return of the heat
The short-term forecast is bleaker when it comes to drought and fire conditions. Desmet said record heat-like temperatures and dry conditions are expected to return by the end of this weekend and into the next week. The forecast means more than just daily records are expected to fall.
For instance, Salt Lake City is well on its way to breaking its record for the warmest June ever in the 147-year history of the city's weather data. Per National Weather Service data through Tuesday, Salt Lake City's average temperature this month is 80.3 degrees. The current record is 77.5 degrees, which was set in 2015 and matched in 2016, and the normal average temperature is 69.7 degrees.
Weyman also pointed out that Salt Lake City is also teetering toward the most 100-degree days in June on record. Salt Lake City reached triple digits on Tuesday, which was the seventh time that's happened this month. The record is eight, set in 1961. He pointed out that eight is also the number of 100-degree days Salt Lake City normally receives in one summer.
With triple-digit highs in the forecast to start next week, there's a strong chance the 1961 record will fall.
Salt Lake City's data is indicative for pretty much the rest of the state, where records in Utah have fallen left and right all month.
Full forecasts for areas across Utah can be found at the KSL Weather Center.