Climate report: 2021 was 3rd hottest on record for Utah; precipitation was average

Kika Chelaru holds Bowie Walker as she tests out the water in the splash pad at Liberty Park during a heat wave in Salt Lake City on June 14, 2021. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Center for Environmental Information reports 2021 was the third hottest on record in Utah.

Kika Chelaru holds Bowie Walker as she tests out the water in the splash pad at Liberty Park during a heat wave in Salt Lake City on June 14, 2021. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Center for Environmental Information reports 2021 was the third hottest on record in Utah. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — 2021 was a year full of extremes — not just in Utah, but for the nation's weather and climate.

Heat waves and dry conditions over the summer and first half of the year eventually gave way to sporadic cooldowns, even large-scale storms. After the data was compiled, 2021 ended up tied with two recent years as Utah's third-hottest on record. The year also landed slightly above average in precipitation.

Meanwhile, large-scale wildfires, extensive drought, devastating storms and bizarre cold patches dominated the year. The impacts of these resulted in 20 different "billion-dollar weather and climate disasters" in 2021, that also resulted in over 600 deaths, according to a report published Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Center for Environmental Information.

Warm conditions continued in 2021

Utah ended 2021 with an average temperature of 50.7 degrees, matching 2015 and 2017 as the third-hottest on record back to 1895, according to the center's data released Monday. The record remains 51.3 degrees, set in 1934, while 2012's 50.9 degrees remains in second place.

Utah has posted an average temperature over the 20th-century average every year since 1993.

Utah's average maximum temperature was 63.7 degrees, which is the fifth-hottest in that category. Its average minimum temperature of 37.8 degrees matched 1934 as the second-warmest in state history.

This map shows average temperatures for states in the contiguous U.S. throughout 2021. One on the scale represented the coolest on record, while 127 represents the hottest. Utah ended up tying its third-hottest average on record in 2021.
This map shows average temperatures for states in the contiguous U.S. throughout 2021. One on the scale represented the coolest on record, while 127 represents the hottest. Utah ended up tying its third-hottest average on record in 2021. (Photo: Center for Environmental Information)

Utah's summer months helped produce the high numbers. After a somewhat mild start to the year, the meteorological summer months of June, July and August were extremely hot. Combined, it was Utah's hottest summer on record in terms of average, maximum and minimum temperatures.

On July 10, in the middle of one of the heat waves, the National Weather Service recorded a temperature 117 degrees in St. George, matching the state's all-time hottest temperature ever recorded, originally set in 1985.

Salt Lake City also matched it's all-time record in 2021 when it hit 107 degrees on June 15 during another heat wave.

The trend of warm conditions continued into the fall in spurts. September and November each ended up among the 10 hottest on record, while December fell in the top 25 hottest. October was cooler than average.

On a countywide level, 2021 was the hottest on record for Iron County. It was well above average elsewhere in the state.

On a nationwide scale, 2021 was the fourth hottest on record in the contiguous U.S. at 54.5 degrees. The record remains 55.3 degrees set in 2012 — the six hottest average temperatures on record have all come within the past decade.

No contiguous states broke average temperature records in 2021. For the exception of most of the Southeast U.S. that was above average, almost every state ended up with an average temperature considered well above average.

Battle of precipitation extremes ends an average year

Meanwhile, Utah followed its driest year on record, in 2020, with a somewhat surprising average one in 2021. Utah collected an average of 13.6 inches of rain throughout the year, about 0.04 inches above the 20th-century average, according to Center for Environmental Information data.

That falls almost directly in the middle of the pack in terms of precipitation recorded since 1895.

This map shows precipitation totals for states in the contiguous U.S. throughout 2021. One on the scale represents the driest on record, while 127 represents the wettest. Utah ended up in the middle close to the average.
This map shows precipitation totals for states in the contiguous U.S. throughout 2021. One on the scale represents the driest on record, while 127 represents the wettest. Utah ended up in the middle close to the average. (Photo: Center for Environmental Information)

This was the result of a different trend that emerged throughout the year. The first half of the year remained almost as dry as 2020. The first half of 2021 was the eighth-driest on record.

Between monsoons and snowstorms, the second half was much, much wetter. It actually ended up the eighth wettest second half on record in Utah.

The shift started in July with the return of the monsoon season in southern Utah, which was both good and bad — bad only because there were several flash floods aided by the extremely dry soil from the exceptional drought that had formed.

2021 produced the 12th wettest July and 13th wettest August on record. While September and November were dry, October landed in the top 20 wettest and it was the seventh wettest December on record.

The average year has drastically improved Utah's drought situation but the drought does persist into 2022. In its weekly update Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 34% of the state remains in at least "extreme" drought — a major drop from 71% in the week before.

All parts of the state do remain in drought and at least 93% remain in "severe" drought status to begin 2022 but the situation is much better than after June 2021. No parts of the state are in "exceptional" drought, or the direst drought conditions, according to the monitor. More than two-thirds of the state fell within the "exceptional" category before the shift in moisture over the summer.

The also good news is the more recent storms pushed Utah's 2022 snowpack above average at the halfway point in the snow season.

Utah's 2021 precipitation story was about the same as the entire region.

"Despite near-normal precipitation at the national scale, 2021 witnessed several significant events at the regional scale, including an above-average monsoon season across the Southwest and several atmospheric river events along the Pacific Coast," the center wrote in its report. "Drought remained extensive across much of the western U.S. throughout 2021."

Meanwhile, the annual precipitation across the contiguous U.S. was 30.48 inches, a little more than a half-inch above average.

Utah included in billion-dollar disasters

Climate and weather events resulted in 688 deaths and an anticipated $145 billion in damages throughout 2021, according to the Center for Environmental Information. It was the sixth-deadliest and third-costliest year since 1980 — and deadliest year in over a decade.

Most of the major disasters involved severe thunderstorms. There were 11 severe storm events, such as the string of tornadoes that rocked Kentucky and other parts of the Midwest and Southeast last month.

Another four were named storms, like hurricanes Ida and Nicholas. Hurricane Ida was also named the costliest event of the year at about $75 billion.

Western wildfires were combined into one category. While Utah avoided massive wildfires that plagued other parts of the region, the state's 1,131 fires still contributed at least $43 million toward the regional total.

This map shows where the 20 major weather and climate events occurred in 2021.
This map shows where the 20 major weather and climate events occurred in 2021. (Photo: Center for Environmental Information)

The Dixie Fire, California's second-largest on record, and the more recent Marshall Fire, blamed for destroying nearly 1,000 homes in Colorado, are included in the report.

Even though Utah was spared from the flames, it couldn't evade impacts from the fires.

"Smoke from several large fires created air quality and health concerns across the West and the contiguous U.S. throughout much of the season," the report noted.

The Western drought and the summer heat waves, including in Utah, was another one of 20 climate or weather-related disasters with damages topping $1 billion in 2021.

The federal agency says climate and weather have resulted in more than 15,000 deaths and produced over $2.1 trillion in damages in the past 40 years. Nearly one-third of the deaths and a little more than one-third of the damage costs have happened in the past five years.

The U.S. averages about 7.4 major events over the past 40 years but that's including recent history, too. The five-year average is 17.2 events that cost over $1 billion. The record since 1980 is 22, set in 2020.

"Disaster costs over the last five years (2017-2021) exceeded a record $742 billion, reflecting the increased exposure and vulnerability of the U.S. to extreme weather and climate events," officials added in the report.

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