Thursday , September 15, 2016 - 11:26 AM9 comments
OGDEN — As clouds gathered around the summit of Mount Ogden, Geraldine Christensen spent Wednesday afternoon planting pansies around her yard on Ogden’s East Bench.
She’s lived in her home since 1969. Apart from setting the sprinklers to water an extra 20 minutes, Christensen said she didn’t notice much different about this past summer compared to summers past. The lawn on her big corner lot stayed green. Her scrub oaks grew tall. The tomatoes in the oak grove produced plenty of fruit.
“We did turn the air conditioner on a few days, and usually we do not turn the air conditioner on because I like the natural breezes,” she said.
Irrigation systems and cooling appliances may have kept Utah households feeling normal, but climate data shows Northern Utah had a summer of extremes.
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In Logan, Lawrence Hipps works as a professor in the Department of Plants, Soils and Climate at Utah State University. He added up precipitation levels for June, July and August and found the city suffered through its driest summer ever recorded.
This summer didn’t just beat the past record — 0.21 inches of rainfall, set in 1953 — it walloped it. Cache Valley’s summer of 2016 only saw .07 inches of precipitation. By comparison, an average Logan summer sees 2.3 inches.
“I follow the weather a lot, so I knew it was really dry. But when I looked at (the data) I was like ‘Wow, dry is one thing, but this is almost zero,’” he said. “It’s unprecedented.”
Dryness wasn’t the only issue. Summer 2016 throughout Northern Utah was abnormally hot. In Logan, it was the 10th-hottest summer on record. Combined with the lack of rain, it marked Cache Valley’s second-worst summer since modern climate record-keeping began in the late 1880s.
Although the records don’t go back quite that far, Ogden broke two records. The city experienced both its hottest and driest summer ever, based on climate data collected at Hill Air Force Base since 1941. June, July and August only saw 0.25 inches of rainfall. The average maximum temperature was 90.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In a normal year, Ogden sees 2.6 inches of rainfall and average daily highs of 86 degrees F.
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A summer without monsoons
The summer was unusually dry because a large, high-pressure ridge — “a big elephant of high pressure,” according to Hipps — settled in the atmosphere over the West. That mound of pressure blocked the monsoon weather Northern Utah typically sees in July and August.
“It made it to Southern Utah, but never made it up to Cache Valley. We didn’t get a drop,” Hipps said.
Hipps’ ongoing research at the Utah Climate Center has found the region’s summers are getting hotter overall. The warming trend is influenced by larger climate cycles happening in the oceans and atmosphere.
“Precipitation here in Northern Utah, it has these naturally occurring cycles of different frequency. Every 12 to 15 years seems to be a wet period, then every 12 to 15 is a dry period. There’s a crest and trough,” Hipps said. “It’s the same, I’ve discovered, with summer temperatures.”
Those natural hot temperature cycles could get worse down the road with building global greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
“What we don’t know is if they’re being amplified by climate change. Starting in the 1980s, the behaviors of summer temperatures still go up and down, but it’s gotten widely larger — there’s much more amplitude,” Hipps said. “Statistically they are not acting as they did in the 100 years before that. That change ... is consistent with what climate models say should be happening.”
But that doesn’t prove Northern Utah’s temperature and precipitations are only caused by humans. To Hipps, that’s not the point. He wants to pin down the region’s climatic patterns. A multiple-year stretch of hot, dry summers has big implications for the region.
For one, “the hotter the summer, the more water gets used by plants and the more stress on native vegetation,” Hipps said. “And the worse the situation for fires.”
Preparing for Utah’s water future
Climate data and trying to understand these bigger cycles is especially helpful for water planners. In Northern Utah, most of the water supply comes from snowpack in the winter. Municipal and agricultural demand for that water peaks in the warm summer months.
“When summer temperatures go up, they don’t go up linearly, they go up rapidly,” Hipps said. “When it gets hotter, water use goes up a lot.”
And with drier conditions in the region than ever recorded in the past, water planners are working to get Wasatch Front residents change the way they think about water.
“Even if you get a wet year, a lot of that moisture will actually replenish the soils instead of going down the rivers and helping things like the Great Salt Lake,” said Josh Palmer with the Utah Division of Water Resources.
An average snowfall year helped Causey and Pineview reservoirs fill this spring for the first time in several years. But with events like Ogden’s record-setting summer, Palmer said “average” is no longer good enough for the region’s water supply. He compared the Weber Basin’s snowpack and reservoirs to a bank account.
“Say you get into debt because you’re unemployed, then you get a job that covers some of your expenses but not all,” Plamer said. “You can survive that way for a while, but eventually something’s got to give — you either need to bring in more income or tighten your belt.”
But to meet the needs of Utah’s growing population and what might be a shrinking water supply, Palmer said more stakeholders will need to come to the water planning table. That might take some difficult conversations about cutting back, increasing supply through more dams and making sure both people and ecosystems get the water they need.
“It’s about multiple groups — from environmental experts, to water quality experts, to water supply experts to agriculture — collaborating to say, ‘how do we find balance?’” Palmer said.
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