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Study: Snowpack Shifts as Wasatch Warms

David White/University of Utah
University of Utah researchers were able to take a closer look at how warming will affect Utah's snowpack. Sundial Peak in the Wasatch Mountains is expected to be high enough at nearly 10,000 feet elevation to escape key impacts.

Someone trying to guess how good the skiing will be in the Wasatch next season will often ask: “How wet will it be?”

But a new study by atmospheric scientist Court Strong and his team at the University of Utah suggests a different question: “How warm will it be?’”

That’s because of climate change.

“In the current climate, the springtime snowpack depends mainly on the precipitation we had in a particular winter and how warm it was in that winter plays a secondary role,” he says. “But as we go out to the end of the current century, those two drivers switch places.”

The study is statewide, but it zooms in on the Wasatch Range. That’s important because most other climate-change studies aren’t high-resolution like this one, so there's little detail about what might happen locally. This study’s like bringing a blurry picture into focus with more pixels. And that’s allowed researchers to see how average temperature becomes more important at a certain elevation to spring snow pack than precipitation.

Strong says Wasatch peaks will still have snow. It just won’t linger each spring as long as it used to at elevations below 7300 feet. The biggest impact for skiing will be outside the Cottonwood canyons at Utah’s lower-elevation ski resorts.

But Strong says all of us, not just the skiers, will feel the difference.

“Once the snow is on the ground, exposed to higher temperatures, it melts warmer and faster in the spring,” he says. “And the question becomes, with population growth, do we have the storage capacity to hold that water and deliver it when demand is highest in the summer?”

The paper has been accepted in the journal, Geophysical Research Letters.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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