Low snowpack despite storms
February 5, 2013
The Wasatch Range only has 60 to 70 percent of the precipitation it should have by this time of year, despite the series of recent storms hitting both the Wasatch Front and Back.
"If you look at the percentage for Salt Lake, they are above normal," National Weather Service Hydrologist Brian McInerney said. "If you look at that alone, you would think the valley and benches would have much less snow compared to the mountains. But that’s not the case this year."
Those who live in the Salt Lake Valley have a perception that Northern Utah’s snowpack is doing really well because of the recent storms, he said.
"They think, ‘Look at how much snow we have here. It must be so much better up high," McInerney said. "But that’s not the case. The most dynamic storms have been in the valleys and benches. But hopefully we’ll start seeing a regular meteorological pattern that will produce more snow in the mountains, and not so much in the valley areas."
Last November brought one storm, followed by several in December, but some storms came in the form of rain, he said. On January 1, the Wasatch Range had a normal level of snowpack, but then it experienced a dry spell, until recently.
"So now our averages have dropped off. And the question is, can we get enough storm activity to bring us back to normal?" McInerney asked.
Climate change is increasingly causing precipitation in Northern Utah to fall more as rain in the lower elevations, he explained.
"Climate change is occurring right now in the Wasatch as we speak, and it’s going to get even worse," he said.
McInerney pointed to a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that predicted future precipitation depending on the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere.
" 2050 or 2060, our hydrology will be rain. We won’t have any snow in the mountains anymore," he said. "That is unfortunate that that’s where we are headed. And that will accelerate or not depending on what we do with the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere. That was just a study that was done. We’ll have to see if that pans out. But those are pretty credible agencies."
The lack of mountain snowpack will pose a serious issue in the future, he added.
"We have this incredibly efficient way where we have snow stored in the mountains, and it’s clean," he said. "Then when we need it, it runs down. And now, if it rains most of the winter, what does that mean? Can we still fill up the reservoirs like we did before? Are we going to change the vegetation? If we do, are they going to take more of that water into the roots, and transpire it out of their leaves? There are a lot of unknowns and I don’t think we have the answers to this by far."