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Imagining Utah In 2100

Photo of Wasatch Front
Brian Albers
Climate change threatens to shorten Utah's winters and reduce snowpack.

The year’s end is usually a time not just for reflection, but to look ahead at what the future might bring. After a year full of mass killings, economic uncertainty, and political strife, it might be easy to see only problems ahead, including the looming threat of climate change. 

But that’s only if things continue unabated, according to Billy Fleming of the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania. He, along with a team of researchers, recently compiled climate data into an atlas of more than 100 maps that project what the U.S. might look like in the year 2100. 

“No place [will be] better off,” Fleming said. “But what we’re trying to do is imagine a world that is less worse off.”

While the project’s authors stress that much of the future is to be determined, the world is already changing, affected in large part by global carbon emissions that hit a record high this year for the third year in a row. That’s causing warmer temperatures, rising sea levels and more frequent destructive weather events, the report said. 

Still, Utah in 2100 appears to be mostly insulated from the most dire effects of climate change, according to the maps. In fact, it might even benefit in some areas. 

Maps show that over the next 80 years, the state will gain more cropland and see economic growth in pockets of Northern and Southern Utah.

A map of predicted economic effects of climate change in the U.S.
Credit Courtesy of The McHarg Center
By 2080-2099, more than 76% of counties in the U.S. will suffer economic damage due to climate change, while only 24% of counties will experience economic benefits when compared to historic averages, the report said.

But the state is also at risk of hotter temperatures and destructive weather events, such as wildfires. 2019 saw over 1,000 fires burn across the state — an average year — which are expected to increase as the planet warms

Utah has already warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 100 years. Further increases could shorten the winter season, limit the snowpack and trigger a migration of plants and animals northward, which Fleming said is already happening in parts of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.

“We tend to frame a lot of the climate conversation around sea-level rise, but heat is actually going to be a huge problem,” he said.

Map of predicted average temperature in the U.S.
Credit Courtesy of The McHarg Center
By the end of the 21st century, the average temperature in the U.S. will increase an average 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

Though sea-level rise will not affect Utah directly, it will likely lead to a mass migration of climate refugees away from the coast and much of the southern U.S. Conservative estimates used to shape the atlas’ in- and out-migration maps project that some 15 million homes will be underwater by the end of the century, Fleming said. 

With Utah’s population expected to nearly double by 2065, the influx of additional refugees could add to the state’s ongoing growth challenges, such as providing adequate housing and transportation options. 

“Part of what climate change will demand from us is that we think about how to anticipate some of those things so that people aren’t left without a lot of options or flooding into places that haven’t thought about what to do with climate refugees,” Fleming said. 

To avoid some of the most daunting challenges, Fleming said the most promising strategies, at least in the short term, are going to be tied to decarbonization. Incentive programs to help people swap out cars and older fleet vehicles for electric ones will both be important steps to move away from fossil fuels. 

“Everything we can put on the grid we probably should as we try to decarbonize the grid,” Fleming said.

Fleming said Utah is well-positioned to become a national leader in climate-positive developments. The state has some of the most solar energy potential in the country. It’s also home to at least 20 communities that have committed to ambitious carbon-neutral energy goals by 2030, the year that is often cited as the deadline to reduce emissions before the most catastrophic effects of climate change take hold. 

If those measures are followed up on — along with national-scale climate action — the future could be much brighter than the atlas predicts now, Fleming said. 

“The conclusion that we hope people take from [the maps] is that the future is very much unsettled,” he said. “We have a chance now to shape it if we take climate change as seriously as we should.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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