Utah’s Changing Climate and Weather

Utah's Changing Climate and Weather: History of global surface temperature since 1880 Click to visit https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature and explore interactive graph. Courtesy NOAA Climate.gov
History of global surface temperature since 1880
Click to visit https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature and explore interactive graph.
Courtesy NOAA Climate.gov
Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.Utah’s Changing Climate and Weather

When I’m standing in line at the post office on a cold, snowy day, I inevitably hear someone make a sarcastic comment about global warming. The reality is, weather and climate are two distinctly different measures. Weather is the combination of current atmospheric conditions, such as temperature, humidity, precipitation, and wind. It changes from day to day, sometimes from minute to minute. It affects our choices of clothing each day, or whether we carry an umbrella.

Climate, however, is a prediction of future weather conditions based on data that have been collected during at least the past few decades. Climate can change as well, but this occurs more slowly over greater time scales. Climate determines which plants we can grow and how much we insulate our homes.

During the last 500 million years, the earth has experienced several different climates from very warm periods to ice ages. Between about one hundred thousand to ten thousand years ago, the planet was impacted by an Ice Age where 30% of the earth was covered by ice extending from the poles. During part of this time, much of Utah was covered by Lake Bonneville, and was home to several now-extinct mammals, such as mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and ground-sloths.

The modern era has also seen climatic changes. Ocean sediments and polar ice core data show that from 900-1300 A.D., the earth’s climate was warmer than normal. However, between about 1300-1900 A.D., the earth experienced a little ice age. Scientists believe this was caused by a combination of three major, natural events- less solar radiation reaching Earth, five major volcanic eruptions, and the disruption of ocean circulation due to melting polar ice caps.

Even though Utah has the second driest climate in the country, annual precipitation has actually increased 14% since the late 1800’s. Sounds great, right? Well, during this same time period, the average temperature has increased three degrees Fahrenheit. This means that more of Utah’s precipitation is falling as rain rather than snow. Because water is released from snowpack at a slower rate, we are provided with water throughout the year. If more of this water comes from rain, it could result in increased stream flow in winter and spring, but decreased stream flow in summer and fall. Furthermore, it is predicted that Utah will be faced with a reduction in snowpack upwards of 50% by the year 2085.

While those of us who enjoy winter sports might experience a gradually shortening ski season, less snowpack is likely to affect us all throughout the year. With Utah’s population expected to double around the year 2050, we’ll need to find creative solutions to an increased demand on water resources.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:
Utah’s Changing Climate and Weather
Images:
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Utah’s Changing Climate and Weather
Additional Reading:

Climate Change and Utah. 1998. US Environmental Protection Agency. EPA 236-F-98-007z. Available at: https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=40000PTI.PDF

Hotter Utah- Not All Bad? 2007. Deseret News. March 18, 2007. Available at: https://www.deseretnews.com/article/660204298/Hotter-Utah–not-all-bad.html

Global Warming: What about Water? 2006. Salt Lake Tribune. October 30, 2006. Available at: https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=4149629&itype=NGPSID

Lindsey, Rebecca and Dahlman, LuAnn, Climate Change: Global Temperature, Climate.gov, NOAA,

Steenburgh, Jim, Wasatch Weather Weenies https://wasatchweatherweenies.blogspot.com/

Weatern Regional Headquarters, National Weather Service, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) https://www.weather.gov/wrh/

A New Winter Coat

Snowshoe Hare Summer Coat
Lepus americanus
Photo Courtesy US NPS


Snowshoe Hare Winter Coat
Photo Courtesy USDA Forest Service

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

November is the time of year in Utah when the weather takes a quick turn from autumn to winter. As the line of snow from occasional October storms creeps further down the mountains, I’m inspired to bring wool sweaters and down jackets out of storage. It’s easy for us to simply wear extra layers, but what about the animals that live high in the mountains, where winter set in weeks ago?

While some mammals are cued by their internal clocks to begin sleeping the winter away, many brave creatures prepare to spend the winter searching for food. Being active in the cold requires a warmer coat, just like it does for us. The reduced amount of daylight in autumn triggers hormones that cue many mammals to grow a thicker and warmer fur coat.

Some mammals, such as weasels and hares, counter the onset of winter by ‘changing’ the color of their fur from brown to white. For instance, snowshoe hares grow long, white guard hairs that cover their brown fur in winter. The snowshoe hare benefits from this thicker, white fur not only by retaining heat, but also by using camouflage to hide from its many predators.

Surprisingly, white fur also helps insulate. It might make more sense for brown fur to be warmer since it is darker in color. But, white hairs, which lack the pigment melanin, have more air spaces that result in greater insulation.

While weasels are predators, there are other animals, including birds of prey, that feed upon them. The winter coat of the ermine, also referred to as the short-tailed weasel, is entirely white, except for the black tip of its tail. When an ermine runs, the tip of its tail swings wildly, drawing the attention of a predator away from its body to its expendable tail.

The timing of change from brown to white fur in autumn is critical to survival. An early snow can create a white backdrop for a snowshoe hare that is still brown, likely increasing the chance of predation. Conversely, a lack of snow late in autumn can make a snowshoe hare that has already turned white stand out like a sore thumb.

The number of days with snow on the ground has been decreasing in mountainous areas, and predation of snowshoe hares has been highest in spring and autumn. In some areas of the country, such as the Cascades and Olympic Mountains, snowshoe hares are mottled white and brown year round, or never turn white in winter. Comparing these populations to others across the West will help us better understand how animals, such as the snowshoe hare, are able to adapt to our changing climate.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy US NPS & USDA Forest Service
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

University of Montana (2009, February 24). Climate Change Hurting Hares: White Snowshoe Hares Can’t Hide On Brown Earth. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 22, 2011, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090224220347.htm

Rust, C.C., R. M. Shackelford, and R.K. Meyer (1965). Control of Pelage Cycles in the Mink. Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Nov., 1965), pp. 549-565, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/5838224

Fraley, J. (2006). Snowshoe Hare: Lepus americanus. Montana Outdoors Portrait. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, https://fwp.mt.gov/mtoutdoors/HTML/articles/portraits/snowshoe.htm

 

Desert Animals-Extreme Survivors

Desert Animals-Extreme Survivors: Collared lizard, Photo Courtesy US FWS, Lawrence Gamble, Photographe
Collared lizard
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Lawrence Gamble, Photographer

Kangaroo Rat
Photo Courtesy US FWS
George Harrison, Photographer

Gila Monster
Photo Courtesy & © Daniel D. Beck
Central Washington University

Couch’s Spadefoot Toad
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Gary M. Stolz, Photographer

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension. Desert Animals-Extreme Survivors

The three main deserts of Utah- the Great Basin to the west, the Colorado Plateau to the east, and the Mojave Desert in the southwest corner of the state- are each inhabited by animals that have unique adaptations for surviving the extreme heat, dryness, and sometimes cold temperatures of the desert.

Many animals survive in Utah’s deserts through behavioral adaptations. During the heat of the day, most animals can be found underground in burrows, or simply sitting in the shade of a shrub or tree. Reptiles, such as the desert tortoise and gila monster, spend almost all of their time in a burrow or under a rock. Many birds and mammals are most active near dawn and dusk when temperatures are coolest, yet there is enough light to see. Many bats, snakes, and rodents are nocturnal, and are only active at night!

Morphological adaptations, related to the shape or color of an animal’s body, are also important for living in the desert. The collared lizard has long legs and toes that keep its body away from the hot ground, reducing heat absorption. White-tailed antelope ground squirrels will use their bushy tails as a shade umbrella, and the long ears of the jackrabbit aid in dispersing body heat.

The kangaroo rat has perhaps the most amazing combination of adaptations for desert survival. Not only does it live in a burrow and is nocturnal, but it recaptures it’s own body moisture by storing food within its burrow. Dry seeds absorb moisture from the kangaroo rat’s breath, which condenses more readily in the cooler underground temperatures.

Physiological adaptations relate to a change in body function to aid survival in the desert. The kangaroo rat has such complex kidneys that it is able to retain as much water as possible. It also has specialized tissues in its nasal passages that help it retain much of the moisture that is normally lost through breathing. If the desert gets too hot, many animals will aestivate, which is similar to hibernating, but is usually in response to a lack of water rather than a lack of food. The spadefoot toad spends 10-11 months out of the year buried in the soil, only to emerge to breed and feed during summer rainstorms.

So, while at first glance, it may look like there isn’t much life in the desert, keep in mind that the vast array of adaptations help ensure the survival of a high diversity of plants and animals in such a harsh ecosystem.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy US FWS images.fws.gov
            Courtesy & Copyright Daniel D. Beck, Central Washington University
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.


Additional Reading:

Utah’s Desert Dwellers: Living in a Land of Climate Extremes. Wildlife Review. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
wildlife.utah.gov/wr/0706desert/0706desert.pdf

Deserts. James MacMahon. The Audubon Society Nature guides. 1985. https://www.amazon.com/Deserts-National-Audubon-Society-Nature/dp/0394731395

Natural History of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin, Harper, St. Clair, Thorne, and Hess (Eds.), 1994. https://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Colorado-Plateau-Great/dp/0870815113

The Biology of Deserts, David Ward, Oxford University Press, 2009. https://www.amazon.com/Biology-Deserts-Habitats/dp/0199211477

Amazing Adaptations of Utah’s Desert Plants

Amazing Adaptations of Utah’s Desert Plants: Click to view larger image of Tap roots that grow deep into the soil to reach groundwater, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer
Tap roots grow deep
to seek groundwater
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer

Winterfat trichomes
Hair-like trichomes provide shade
and absorb dew
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer

Prickly Pear Cactus
Fibrous roots quickly absorb water
and store it in wide succulent leaves
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Gary M. Stolz, Photographer

Waxy Creosote Bush
Leaf coating inhibits desication
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Anyone who lives in Utah knows that it’s a dry state. In fact, around three-quarters of our state is considered desert. A desert is often characterized as an area that receives less than ten inches of precipitation each year. But, high levels of evaporation, which are influenced by temperature, wind speed, and solar radiation, also contribute to creating a dry desert ecosystem.

So, how exactly are plants able to survive in Utah’s deserts, which are so dry? It turns out that the plants that grow and flourish in Utah’s deserts have an amazing array of adaptations for survival.

Many shrubs and trees, such as desert willow, and certain species of sagebrush and mesquite, have thick taproots that grow deep into the soil to reach groundwater. This helps the plants survive the hot, dry summer. Some mesquite taproots have been found to grow as deep as 200 feet to reach a constant water supply.

Cacti, such as the various types of prickly pear, have almost an opposite adaptation. They produce dense tufts of fibrous roots just below the surface of the soil. This allows cacti to quickly absorb water from brief rainstorms, and then store the water in their thick, succulent leaves.

As temperature increases, desert plants face the danger of excessive water loss from their leaves. A thick, waxy coating on the outside of leaves often helps to retain water. The shiny wax also reflects sunlight to keep the leaves relatively cooler. To further reduce leaf temperature and water loss, some plants, such as brittlebush, grow light-colored dense ‘hairs’ on their leaves and stems. These trichomes not only shade the plant, but also aid in absorbing water from morning dew.

If temperatures get too hot, and drought stress too great, some plants, such as creosote bush and ocotillo, may drop their leaves several times each year to ensure survival. Some of these plants have green chlorophyll in their stems so they can still produce food through photosynthesis when there are no leaves on the plant.

While this is just a sample of an amazing collection of adaptations, it’s clear that desert plants are champions of survival in a harsh ecosystem where water is so scarce.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova

US FWS images.fws.gov
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Additional Reading:

Utah’s Desert Dwellers: Living in a Land of Climate Extremes. Wildlife Review. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
wildlife.utah.gov/wr/0706desert/0706desert.pdf

Deserts. James MacMahon. The Audubon Society Nature guides. 1985. https://www.amazon.com/Deserts-National-Audubon-Society-Nature/dp/0394731395

Natural History of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin, Harper, St. Clair, Thorne, and Hess (Eds.), 1994. https://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Colorado-Plateau-Great/dp/0870815113

The Biology of Deserts, David Ward, Oxford University Press, 2009. https://www.amazon.com/Biology-Deserts-Habitats/dp/0199211477