Provo’s first snow of the 2016-2017 season marked the longest frost-free period in the history of Utah.
The period lasted since the last snow of the 2015-2016 season on March 29 to the first snow of this season on Nov. 17.
“We’re seeing the magnitude of change and the rate at which it’s occurring is really troubling,” said BYU professor Richard Gill.
Gill teaches biology, ecology and conservation biology. He is a global change biologist and expert on climate change.
“The context for all of my research is climate change,” Gill said.
Earth’s climate changes in the past have taken 100,000 years or more. Dramatic changes now take about 250 years, according to Gill. He also said certain places are “exposed” to climate change more than others.
“The climate has changed most rapidly in cold places,” Gill said. “And there’s a reason for that.”
Gill said places covered in snow for most of the year, like the Arctic and the Boreal zones, have a temperature hanging around zero. Slight temperature changes in these areas result in precipitation taking the form of rain instead of snow, which leaves certain areas exposed longer and gives them more of an opportunity to melt.
In Utah, one of the problems residents will have to prepare themselves for is future use of water. Long said while Utah may get the same amount of water it always has, water will likely come as rain.
Farmers have always depended on the large amount of winter snow. In the future, Gill said, residents will have to possibly deal with mid-summer drought. Less snow also results in drier soil.
“From an agricultural standpoint, climate change is a really big deal, especially in places like Utah,” Gill said.
Gill is part of a global change experiment looking at the interaction between annual grass invasions and climate change. A video by Gill gives a broad look at part of a controlled burn in the Mojave desert, part of the experiment.
BYU’s Center for World Sensing director David Long measures conditions of the earth using radar sensing. This technology is made possible by satellites and allows Long and his colleagues to observe changes in the ocean and ice in various parts of the world, in addition to other environments.
Much of the work Long and BYU have done on sea ice was featured in a CNN story.
“Since the start of the satellite era, the earth’s oceans have risen about 8 centimeters, which isn’t very much,” Long said. “But if this continues, there are areas very close to sea level that could get more and more flooding. Rising sea levels will be a problem for human populations.”
Flooding occurs because of two reasons, according to Long. First, as water warms, it expands. Second, there is a lot of ice in Antarctica and Greenland melting at high rates.
“Greenland is melting even higher than the worst case predictions right now,” Long said.
Long doesn’t pretend to have a positive attitude about the ice melting in Greenland or levels of carbon dioxide worldwide.
“If you look at the rise in carbon dioxide they’ve measured for the last 150 years, it has been very steady,” Long said. “This winter, the carbon dioxide did not drop below 400 parts per million, which is pretty high. We probably won’t go back at this point.”
Long said denying climate models predicting drastic changes in the future is “wishful thinking.”
“It doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not. Conditions are what they are,” Long said. “We need to prepare ourselves and our societies for these changes.”
BYU statistics professor William Christensen said he views climate change from a purely numbers standpoint. His work has dealt with using data from sources about temperature and putting the data together to better understand aspects of climate change.
“It’s become very clear to me that the climate is changing,” Christensen said of his work.
Both Gill and Christensen cited being politically active and influencing policy as a way people can begin to make a difference on a broader level. On an individual level, people can conserve energy and recycle.
“Anything that’s good for the environment is good for people,” Long said.
Although climate change can be a depressing topic, Gill remains optimistic. He said he believes people will see climate change as an opportunity to innovate and make a difference in their own sphere of influence.
“Humans have a major impact on the nature of climate change, and we have to be serious about what the science is saying about climate change so that we can make good decisions going forward,” Christensen said.