Record warm winter temperatures impact on Utah

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This winter was the warmest on record in U.S. history, according to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report. This raises concerns about environmental advocacy in Utah, snowpack supply, and climate change. (Pexels.com)

Following Utah’s record-breaking snowiest winter in 2023, this season’s snowfall may have fallen short of expectations.

One environmental science student and BYU sophomore Finn Parker said he noticed a difference.

“I’ve just been so surprised at how many times it’s rained down in the valley when I would expect snow. Instead, it’s raining in the valley and snowing up in the mountains,” he said. “Every time I noticed that I thought about climate change and how we have experienced warming.”

February’s average temperature in the United States was 41.1 degrees Fahrenheit, which was 7.2 degrees higher than the norm for the 20th century and the third-warmest February in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 130-year climate record.

Provo’s winter lingered into March and early April of 2023. Despite the warmer winter and diminished snowfall, the snowpack has endured into the forthcoming 2023-2024 winter season. (Elsa Bray)

Not only that, but February was the hottest month on record throughout the world as well. Copernicus Climate Change Service reported nine consecutive months of record temperatures.

Climate change not only describes the driving up of global temperatures but also makes different weather phenomena more extreme such as prolonged and intensified droughts. Recent weather patterns reflect this trend, with record-breaking snowfall observed in 2023 followed by a return to more typical conditions in 2024.

This would explain why, instead of snow, Utah’s precipitation this winter came mostly as rain.

Zach Aanderud, a professor and researcher in the Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences at BYU, said Utah relies on getting snow every winter.

“Mountain snowpack is incredibly important to us, not only for our industry, skiing, tourism and business but also for our water supply,” he said.

Aanderud explained while all precipitation is good, rain is harder to capture than snow. Utah is a cold desert that relies on storing water in rivers and reservoirs to meter that water out at different times during the year.

According to the National Resources Conservation Service water supply outlook report for 2024, Utah experienced an exceptional February, receiving 180% of the typical precipitation for the month. This indicates the state saw significantly more rainfall or snowfall than usual during that period, making it a notably wet month for Utah.

All major basins in the state have a higher snowpack than what was expected. So even though there were some differences between this year and last, 2024 was still a strong snowpack season.

However, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average global temperature has risen. Scientists have observed the amount of water held in the Western U.S. snowpack has decreased by more than 20% compared to the 1950s.

If the trend of declining snowpack water content and rising global temperatures continues, it could exacerbate water scarcity, disrupt ecosystems, threaten biodiversity and amplify the frequency and severity of natural disasters such as droughts, wildfires and floods.

Parker explained climate change is a monolith, a complicated issue with many different pieces, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to create change.

“Ultimately, it starts with a small group of people who are passionate about something and have a vision, and over time, through their diligent efforts, change can happen,” he said.

The possibility of change is one of the reasons Parker chose to study environmental science and climate change, he said.

Aanderud said he advises his students who want to make change to take practical steps in their daily lives to address environmental challenges.

“Translating that to action is when it becomes really tough. It’s hard. That’s why I always encourage people to do stuff that is in their daily lifestyle. Something that they’re reminded of every day,” Aanderud said.

Aanderud recommended people select two activities that they’re capable of and can implement easily. One of these activities could be adopting a diet lower on the food chain. This means consuming foods that are closer to primary producers such as plants, as opposed to relying heavily on animal products.

For example, cows and dairy products, while enjoyable, are inefficient in terms of resource consumption and land usage. Shifting toward a plant-based diet, rich in whole foods and grains, is a more sustainable option. 

Another simple yet impactful activity is to walk more and drive less. While seemingly small, reducing driving can reduce carbon emissions, enhance air quality and promote a healthier environment for all. Additionally, it addresses what Aanderud described as the predominantly sedentary lifestyle prevalent in the U.S.

Although walking is not accessible to everyone, navigating a college campus on foot, particularly within the tight-knit BYU community, is a common experience for BYU students.

Parker also suggested students advocate for climate change through civic activism focused on engaging with legislators to influence policy decisions.

“Ultimately they’re there to represent the people … and if they’re aware of what we’re concerned about I would like to think that regardless of their personal backgrounds, they will listen,” he said.

As the weather heads into spring, students can try to implement these things into their own lives and discuss them with their friends.

To learn more, BYU students can take classes such as PWS 150 taught by Aanderud.

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