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SALT LAKE CITY — 2022 ended up as yet another warmer and drier-than-average year for the state of Utah; however, it won't end up anywhere near the worst in either category thanks to a cold and stormy end to the year, according to newly released federal climate data.
Last year ended up with an average of 49.6 degrees Fahrenheit while collecting an average of 11.32 inches of precipitation, marking the 16th-warmest and 30th-driest calendar year since statewide figures were first calculated in 1895, according to data released Tuesday by the National Centers for Environmental Information.
2022 is the third straight year that Utah has ended up with below-average precipitation. Still, 2022 was nowhere near as bad as 2020, which remains the state's driest year on record.
Additionally, the release says the Beehive State's average temperature has exceeded the 20th-century normal every year since 1993.
The agency's annual year-end report, released along with the data Tuesday, notes that the U.S. average of 53.4 degrees Fahrenheit in 2022 was among the top third of warmest years on record, 1.4 degrees above the average. The 28.35 inches of annual precipitation fell below the average by 1.59 inches.
It adds that there were 18 different weather and climate events that caused at least $1 billion in damages over the past year, including the scorching heat wave that rocked the West in September and the ongoing drought that reached as much as 63% of the country by late October. Utah's current drought situation began in 2020.
A shift in Utah trends?
Utah was on pace for having its third-driest year on record after June and on pace for the 11th-hottest year on record after a record-breaking September. Then November and December each ended up producing cooler and wetter-than-normal conditions. Last month, for example, was the state's 23rd-wettest December in 128 years of record-keeping.
That trend has continued into the first half of January, as well.
- Utah's snowpack has doubled since Dec. 27, jumping from 6.4 inches of snow water equivalent to 12.9 inches as of Thursday morning, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service data.
- Thursday's figure represents a little more than four-fifths of Utah's typical snowpack collection in one season, and there are still 82 days left before the typical snowpack peak date in early April.
Utah State University climatologists say the indications are that Utah may have an above-average year even if the storms taper off in February, an important step in exiting the ongoing drought. Even with the surge in precipitation over the past few weeks, 97% of the state remains in at least a moderate drought, and more than one-fourth of the state remains in at least extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
But the snowpack runoff goes toward refilling Utah's reservoirs. The statewide reservoir system has rebounded some over the past few weeks but currently remains at about 49% of capacity, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. The water currently in the mountain snowpack should help boost that number in the spring.
"There's a high degree of optimism that our year-over-year reservoir levels will begin to fill back up, and we'll start to see some steps out of the drought conditions that we've been stuck in," said Jon Meyer, a climate scientist with USU's Utah Climate Center.
Meyer also told KSL-TV that it's possible that the last two months and a strong start to January are the start of a multi-year wet cycle, which would be hugely beneficial to the state's drought situation. These cycles, he explains, can result in about five to six years of stronger precipitation.
That would be welcomed in Utah, given that experts say it may take years of above-average snowpack to help Utah's hydrology patterns return to pre-2020 levels.
"There's a lot of optimism that — as a lot of that wet cycle occurs — our water resources will rebound," he added.
However, even if that does happen, Meyer cautions that won't mean Utahns can be less mindful about water consumption. The state's population is still growing at a rapid pace and that is causing more demand on the water supply.
On top of that, the USU Climate Center authored a report in 2021 that found there's a growing probability that another "megadrought" — or a series of significant droughts in a short period of time — could happen again this century. It's why he believes many of the water-saving practices over the past few years should become the norm moving forward.
"There will be a paradigm shift in Utah's relationship with water use inside of city limits and agricultural settings," Meyer said. "And whether that paradigm shift happens in the next year or two or happens in the next decade or two, it's going to happen."