Report raises red flags for Utah

By By Arthur Raymond

By Arthur Raymond

Editor’s note: This is the first part in a 3-part series about the study of climate change.

Hotter, drier and dangerous to your health.

These projections of trends in Utah’s changing climate are all contained in a report released in September to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change.

The report, compiled by scientists from the U, Utah State University, Brigham Young University and the United States Department of Agriculture, found that the western United States, and Utah specifically, is experiencing more significant warming than the rest of the world, with the exception of the Arctic.

The changes in Utah will likely result in fewer days of frost, a longer growing season and more heat waves. This could also trigger a decline in local snowpack and lead to “severe and prolonged episodic drought,” according to the report.

The team of scientists was led by the U’s Jim Steenburgh, chair of the department of meteorology. Their report summarizes the most current information available on climate change and its potential impacts on Utah and the western United States.

The scientists note a global increase in average surface temperature, stating in the report that there is “very high confidence that human-generated greenhouse gas concentrations are responsible for most of the global warming observed in the past 50 years.” It also discounts the likelihood of temperature change coming as the result of natural contributors, such as changes in the brightness of the sun or carbon emissions from volcanos.

The report says that in the past decade, Utah’s average temperature was “higher than observed during any comparable period of the past century.” The report goes on to note a 2-degree increase in Utah in the last 100-year period, compared to a global change of 1.3 degrees over the same period of time.

Thomas Reichler, an assistant professor in the U’s department of meteorology and member of Steenburgh’s team, said that climate change could affect northern and southern Utah in different ways. Northern Utah may experience an increase in precipitation, while southern Utah could become dramatically drier. Higher overall temperatures in both the north and south would still result in “drying” through evaporation, despite more rain in the north.

This drying trend will affect Utah’s winter recreation industry, as snowfall declines and, in turn, lowers water levels in reservoirs dependent on spring runoff from snowfall. Increased temperatures could also increase agricultural demand for irrigation water and change the environment for aquatic life in Utah’s warming lakes and streams.

Robert Gillies, the director of the Utah Climate Center and another member of Steenburgh’s team, noted that climate trends suggest “many more days” of very high temperatures — in the upper 90s — in Utah’s future. He also noted the possibility of losing two months of regular snowfall as higher temperatures would result in rainfall, instead of snow.

Utah may also have to anticipate new health concerns associated with a change in climate. Though the report notes these concerns relate to the availability of residential air conditioning, there may be an increase in heat-related illnesses and deaths, a higher incidence of cardiorespiratory disease and an increase in diseases transmitted by insects and animals.

The report makes a direct connection between the production of greenhouse gases and threatening changes in Utah’s climate.

Greenhouse gas emissions in Utah are continually increasing. A report compiled by the Center for Climate Strategies, indicates that greenhouse gas output in Utah increased by 40 percent from 1990 to 2005. Projections based on expected increase in demand and population growth predict increases of 54 percent by 2010 and 95 percent by 2020.

As of 2005, Utah ranks near the middle of per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in a ranking of 14 western states, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Steenburgh said the panel gathered the most up-to-date information available on a list of climate issues provided by the council. The sources include findings of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the group that was co-awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

“We established a set of protocols to keep politics out of the findings,” Steenburgh said, noting the subject matter is of a “highly contentious political nature.” Steenburgh also explained that no value assessments of the findings were made by his team, again part of the effort to present a neutral document.

Steenburgh noted that his team’s analysis does not account for reductions, or changes, in current trends. He did highlight a need for climate information and research that is more specific to Utah, which he characterized as having “a very unique set of climatic characteristics.”

Huntsman has set a goal for increasing energy efficiency statewide 20 percent by 2015. He has charged the council with considering the areas related to climate change that the state can address.

“For Utah to continue to enjoy vibrant economic development, a healthy environment and quality of life, we must take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change,” Huntsman said in a statement in response to the findings of the climate report.

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