Utah’s Changing Climate and Weather

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

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:

Images:
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
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: http://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: http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=4149629&itype=NGPSID

Wind, Hold on to Your Hat!

Graphical Forecasts – Central Rockies
NOAA National Weather Service
Western Regional Headquarters

Hi I’m Holly Strand.

On a recent camping trip on Utah’s Colorado Plateau, my brother and I were buffeted by strong sand-blasting winds for two days straight. Setting up camp was nearly impossible. Strong gusts ripped the tent away from us. Catching only the guylines, we flew the big green tent like a kite through the sagebrush. Eventually we pulled it down and got stakes in the ground. Unable to make a fire, we ate a cold dinner and tried to sleep –until the tent collapsed under the persistent onslaught of meteorological Furies. The next day, the sand-infused wind whipped us painfully as we descended into Horseshoe Canyon. Dust devils pursued us along the canyon floor.

Arriving home I read up on the cause of our discomfort. In simplest terms wind is caused by air moving from high to low pressure. The steeper the air pressure gradient—that is –the change in air pressure per unit distance–the stronger the resulting wind speed. Differences in air pressure are often caused by localized warming of air temperature. The warm air rises creating a spot of relatively low pressure ; then cooler air from a high pressure region rushes in to replace it.

Wind tends to blow much more forcefully near a frontal boundary. And our camp was located very close to the low pressure center of a stationary front. Although the wind was a nuisance, it was probably only blowing around 35 miles an hour. Meanwhile the record in Utah is 124 miles an hour –a wind gust measured at 11000 feet Snowbird. The strongest wind gust here in Logan was 94 miles an hour. Compare this to the highest wind on record anywhere—a gust measuring 253 miles per hour on Australia’s Barrow Island during a tropical cyclone. The record in the United States is 231 miles per hour on top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Higher wind speeds than these may occur in tornadoes, but anemometers tend to malfunction at extreme speeds .

Luckily, we don’t have to worry much about tornadoes. Utah ranks very low in terms of tornado frequency. We average 2-33 a year with most of them occurring May through August. Utah tornadoes tend to be small and not last very long. Whirlwinds or dust devils are much more common. About 90% of them occur in the West Desert where there is plenty of loose, dry dust and sand to swirl around in the air.

Thanks to Marty Booth of the Utah Climate Center for help in developing this Wild About Utah episode.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy US NOAA
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

National Weather Service (NOAA) “Dust Devils” http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/fgz/science/dustdvl.php?wfo=fgz [Accessed June 15, 2011]

National Weather Service (NOAA) Jetstream Online School for Weather. “Origin of Wind” http://www.srh.noaa.gov/srh/jetstream/synoptic/wind.htm [Accessed June 15, 2011]

National Weather Service (NOAA) Daily weather maps http://www.hpc.ncep.noaa.gov/dailywxmap/ [Accessed June 15, 2011]

Utah Climate Center http://climate.usurf.usu.edu/

Pope, Dan and Clayton Brough (eds.) Utah’s Weather and Climate. 1996. Salt Lake City: Publisher’s Press. http://www.amazon.com/Utah-Weather-Climate-D-Pope/dp/1567131743

http://www.photolib.noaa.gov

Snowflakes

A free-falling snow crystal
photographed as it fell
Alta Ski Area on March 6, 2011
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2011
Tim Garrett, University of Utah
Alta Snowflake Showcase

As winter draws to a close, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the amazing weather phenomenon that is a snowflake. When winter weather dumps inches of snow on us, it’s easy to overlook the tiny works of art, those intricate and delicate snowflakes, which make up the storm.

Snowflakes – or to use a more scientific term, snow crystals – come in a variety of different shapes including long, thin needles, flat hexagonal plates, columns, and irregularly-shaped pellets called graupel. The International Snow Classification System recognizes ten different shapes in all, only one of which is the traditional snowflake image. The classic six-armed snowflake shape is called a ‘stellar dendrite’ by scientists.

When teaching programs about snow, someone inevitably asks me, “Is it really true that no two snowflakes are alike?” As far as I can tell, the answer is, well, ‘maybe’, and here’s why.

A free-falling snow crystal
photographed as it fell
Alta Ski Area
March 6, 2011
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2011
Tim Garrett, University of Utah
Alta Snowflake Showcase

Three things are needed to form these intricate crystals, and the first two are fairly obvious: water, and temperatures below freezing. The third item is a little more inconspicuous. Water cannot condense and freeze all on its own. Every snowflake needs a piece of atmospheric dust or salt at its core. This particle is referred to as a ‘nucleating agent,’ and it attracts water molecules which then condense and begin to freeze. From there, a snowflake’s overall shape is determined by a number of other variables including the atmospheric temperature, the amount of available moisture, wind speed, and mid-air collisions with other snowflakes.

To add more complexity, consider that each individual snowflake contains somewhere on the order of 10 quintillion water molecules. That’s ten with eighteen zeros behind it. While the way these molecules bind to each other is dictated by the laws of physics, the sheer number of ways in which 10 quintillion water molecules can arrange themselves as they freeze into place is mind boggling. But then again, how many snowflakes do you think fall in the typical March snowstorm in Utah? A lot. One scientist has estimated that the number of individual snowflakes that have fallen on Earth in the planet’s history is ten with 34 zeros behind it. In all of those snowflakes is it possible that two are exactly alike? Yeah, maybe… but good luck finding them!

A stellar dendrite snow crystal Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
SnowCrystals.com

For more information and some beautiful snowflake photographs, please visit our website at www.wildaboututah.org. Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy Tim Garrett, University of Utah,
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
Text: Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center

Additional Reading:

Halfpenny, J.C and Ozanne, R.D. 1989. Winter: An Ecological Handbook. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, http://www.amazon.com/Winter-Ecological-Handbook-James-Halfpenny/dp/1555660363

A stellar dendrite snow crystal Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
SnowCrystals.com

Gosnell, Mariana. 2007. Ice: the Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, http://www.amazon.com/Ice-Nature-History-Astonishing-Substance/dp/0679426086

Libbrecht, Kenneth .1999. A Snowflake Primer: the basic facts about snowflakes and snow crystals. http://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/primer
/primer.htm

 

 

 

A hexagonal plate snow crystal cite>Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
SnowCrystals.com

Graupel Snow

Graupel Snow
Image Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane

Snow graces the winter sky in many different forms. We have large lazy flakes drifting down, sharp needles driven by harsh winds and thick curtains that swiftly blanket the landscape. Late winter storms offer good chances to observe one of our more unusual and distinctive kinds of snowfall; “graupel”. Graupel – that sounds like some kind of respiratory malady, doesn’t it? Also known as soft hail or tapioca snow, graupel consists of tender round snow pellets no bigger than a pea. The name comes from the German word for hulled grain, “graupe”.

Graupel accompanies warmer winter storms, the kind we often have in March, as well as during summer showers high in the mountains. The pellets form when snow crystals fall through a low cloud of super-cooled liquid droplets. The foggy droplets readily coalesce and freeze around the falling ice crystals, accumulating to form soft graupel pellets. The process is somewhat akin to making rock candy from a concentrated hot sugar syrup, or the method used to generate artificial snow. In contrast, sleet forms when raindrops fall through a cold air layer and freeze.

Our big snowfalls are spawned by storms that generate sprawling unbroken cloud decks. Graupel snow, on the other hand, tumbles down from the bellies of fluffy cumulus clouds. As a consequence, squalls of graupel are brief, the pellets accumulating in a thin white bumpy layer, hence the other common name, “tapioca snow”. A buried layer of tapioca snow is prone to avalanche for the first day or two, after which the pellets anneal and stabilize. Any connoisseur of Utah snow should have graupel in their lexicon of wintry terminology, at the ready to impress any Sun Belt visitor met on the slopes.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.
Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane

Text: Jim Cane & Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading:

Riehl, Herbert: Introduction to the Atmosphere, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1972 http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Atmosphere-Herbert-Riehl/dp/0070526567

Rime and Graupel http://emu.arsusda.gov/snowsite/rimegraupel/rg.html

American Meteorological Society, Glossary of Meteorology http://amsglossary.allenpress.com/glossary/search?id=graupel1

Graupel – What is Graupel? http://weather.about.com/od/g/g/graupel.htm