Study Predicts Big Change For Utah's Climate

Study Predicts Big Change For Utah's Climate

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News Specialist John Daley reporting Is our region's climate changing? A new, Congressionally-mandated report on the subject, with input from 150 experts, finds it clearly is.

And, scientific models project our region will see dramatic increases in temperature within our lifetimes.

Utah likes to boast that it has "The Greatest Snow on Earth." But due to global warming, snowpacks throughout the Rocky Mountains are steadily decreasing.

According to a new report, scientists predict our temperatures will increase by between 5 and 10 degrees by the end of the century. That will alter our region's environment in dramatic and unpredictable ways.

One year ago today, Utah enjoyed all its wintry Olympic glory. But a look at our region's recent weather makes one wonder if Utah's place as a winter sports mecca will some day melt away.

Consider last month, the Wasatch Front's driest January ever. Or July 2002, the hottest month ever recorded in Salt Lake City.

Is our region's climate changing? Yes, according to the Rocky Mountain/Great Basin Climate Change Assessment.

The report focuses on a nine-state region and gathers information from 150 experts.

The study finds temperatures in our region rose on average by one degree over the past century. And precipitation rose, as well.

The report's principal author, Fred Wagner of Utah State University, says computer models predict we'll see big changes ahead.

"Changes by the end of the 21st century on the order of anywhere from five to ten degrees farenheit in temperature, and a sizable increase in precipitation," he says.

The changes promise to be most dramatic at higher elevations. Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey have taken core samples from glaciers in Wyoming's Wind River Range. They found clear signs the Earth is already warming.

David Naftz of the U.S. Geological Survey says, "During the last 40 years, we've seen a very marked accelerated increase in temperature change at these high elevation regions."

Dave Susong, also of the U.S.G.S., explains, "Our measurements corroborate what we see from many other researchers around the world. And I think as someone who has spent some time looking atthis, I mean, it's staring us in the face now."

BYU Engineer David Long helped design a new generation radar satellite, which has been monitoring ice shelfs in Greenland and Antarctica. His studies, too, have found unmistakable signs the planet is heating up.

"It does seem very clear that the earth is warming up. But we don't know if that's an ordinary cyclic behavior or whether this is directly the result of our pollution," he says.

The climate change report for our region projects major changes.

Precipitation increases could eventually--decades from now--eliminate the state's current water shortage. Could our water infrastructure handle a 50-100% precipitation increase?

Flooding--caused by a 12% rise in the Great Salt Lake--was a serious problem in the 1980s. A 50% to 100% increase could easily put the airport, I-80, I-15 and the currently-delayed Legacy Highway underwater.

"It's going to rise and much of the Wasatch Front is going to be at risk," Wagner says.

Climate change could mean major changes for agriculture, ranching and wild animals and plants, possibly pushing some species to extinction.

And, sharp temperature increases could be catastrophic for the ski industry. One Canadian climatologist predicts there'll be zero snowpacks in the northern Rockies by the year 2070. In other words, skiing in Utah could be history.

"With that scenario, if we lose snowpacks totally, yes, it'll become a thing of the past," Wagner says.

But here's another very scary "what if?" If temperature increases happen without an increase in precipitation here in Utah, then drought conditions would undoubtedly continue, and worsen.

Meantime, meterologists say it appears the El Nino cycle is ending, which means we may be in for another four years of drought.

By the way, the final version of this report will be out in the next couple of months.

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