Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Sunday, August 19, 2018

What climate change means for Utah

Last Wednesday three of my colleagues from BYU and I met with Congressman John Curtis to talk about what climate change means for Utah. The meeting was organized by the Citizen's Climate Lobby and RepubliEn.

 We met on the west side of Cascade with on the smoky morning. Photo courtesy of BYU Photo.

Representative Curtis was attentive and well informed. He brought up the point that we sometimes get too concerned about whether someone accepts that climate change is occurring and whether it is human caused. Climate change is enough of a polarizing issue that I tend to agree. I count anyone as an ally who is willing to work towards cleaning up our energy supply and using our resources responsibly. If someone is denying climate change and using that as a reason to keep consuming dirty fuels, then establishing the science becomes more important. In my experience, fighting about beliefs isn't terribly productive. If someone sincerely wants to investigate the scientific basis of climate change, John Cook has already done much of the legwork for her/him: https://www.skepticalscience.com/.

Neil, Sam, Zach, and I prepared a brief info sheet for Congressman Curtis, which I thought I'd share here.

How has Utah’s climate changed and what does the future hold?
  • It has warmed 2°F over the last century. An additional increase of 3.8°F is expected by 2050 (1). Summer and fall warming will be greatest.
  • Transition from snow to rain. Spring snowpack has decreased in Utah by ~30% on average, and more than 75% in some areas (Fig. 1). Precipitation is expected to decrease in central and southern Utah.
  • Wildfire in the Intermountain West nearly doubled from 1979-2015. More than half that change was due to manmade climate change (2).

What does climate change mean for Utah’s water?
  • Even without climate change, Utah is facing a water crisis (Fig. 2).
  • Utah has always been vulnerable to climate VARIATION, especially recurring drought. Climate change and population growth increase vulnerability to drought.
  • Decreased groundwater recharge (aquifer depletion), less reliable runoff (empty or overflowing reservoirs), and expensive water infrastructure because of increased evapotranspiration and changes to the amount and timing of precipitation

What does climate change mean for Utah’s ecosystems?
  • Fire will continue to increase in severity, extent, and frequency because of warming, lightning, invasive species, and dryer fuels.
  • Invasive species such as the pine beetle and cheatgrass are damaging ecosystems and costing millions of dollars a year3.
  • Loss of snowpack, more extreme weather, and increases in evapotranspiration are pushing many Utah ecosystems to the edge.

What does climate change mean for Utah’s people?
  • The annual human death toll from air pollution is 15 million worldwide (4), 200,000 in the U.S., and 2,000-5,000 in Utah (5). That is more than 10 times the number of Utahns who die in car accidents every year. Pollution from fossil fuels is responsible for 85% of this loss of life and 15% is from smoke, dust, and other sources, which will be worsened by climate change.
  • Quality of life depends on climate and healthy ecosystems
  • Longer hotter summers, less snow, worse summer air quality, degraded lands

What can we do about it?
  • Reduce production and consumption of fossil fuels. Most of the consequences of climate change can still be mitigated if human emissions are actively reduced.
  • Conserve water use (agriculture, industry, and domestic)
  • Protect integrity of natural systems: intact ecosystems are more resilient
  • The clean energy, technological innovation, and strong communities needed to respond to climate change are opportunities for Utah.

1. Naz, B. S. et al. Regional hydrologic response to climate change in the conterminous United States using high-resolution hydroclimate simulations. Glob. Planet. Change 143, 100–117 (2016).
2. Abatzoglou, J. T. & Williams, A. P. Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 113, 11770–11775 (2016).
3. Kurz, W. A. et al. Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change. Nature 452, 987–990 (2008).
4. Landrigan, P. J. et al. The Lancet Commission on pollution and health. The Lancet 0, (2017).
5. Caiazzo, F., Ashok, A., Waitz, I. A., Yim, S. H. L. & Barrett, S. R. H. Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005. Atmos. Environ. 79, 198–208 (2013).

 Neil Hansen talks about how water quantity and quality may change. BYU Photo.
 Zach Aanderud gets serious enough to take off his glasses.
I discuss the human health effects of air pollution and climate change from fossil fuels.
Sam St. Clair brings it home with an explanation of wildfire, invasive species, and forests.


  1. Thanks for the outreach. Hope Curtis can find a way around his party’s intransigence on these issues