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The Science Behind Utah’s Big Wind Storm

Photo of rotor clouds over the Salt Lake valley.
National Weather Service
Rotor clouds moved in over the Wasatch Front Tuesday evening, after a windstorm brought widespread damage and left more than 150,000 people without power.

The wild winds that swept across Northern Utah Monday and Tuesday were caused by a storm system and cold front that came down from Canada, according to Meteorologist Christine Cruz with the National Weather Service.

The system, which brought unusually strong winds, made its way through the central plains of the U.S. and into the Wasatch Front, she said.

“It was a very cold air mass behind that front and we were very warm ahead of it,” Cruz said. “We were in the 90s to even 100s ahead of it, and this air behind it was in the 30s and 40s.”

Cruz said when there is that much of a temperature difference, along with such a strong storm system, winds will intensify.

Cold fronts like that aren’t unusual in winter, she said, but they are for this time of year. Though she noted it’s difficult to say if this one storm is the result or a sign of climate change, or if climate change will make wind storms more common in the future.

“It's very difficult to tie one particular event to climate change,” she said. “It's more likely we could say that these very warm temperatures that we’re more commonly seeing in September would be related to the long term pattern from climate change.”

But according to Tony Gliot, director of Salt Lake City’s Urban Forestry Division, these kinds of storms do have a role to play in a forest’s ecosystem.

“Wind events like this, just like a forest fire, are part of the life of any forest,” he explained Wednesday at a press conference in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Park.

Gliot estimates that a thousand public trees were damaged in the wind storm that ripped through the area this week — along with another thousand on private property.

Right now crews are prioritizing public safety as they continue clean-up — like getting trees off of houses and cars, clearing roads and making sure damaged trees aren’t a threat to people’s safety.

Ultimately though, Gliot said the city will replant its trees and its forest will regrow.

The storm knocked out power for almost 180,000 Utahns according to the state’s largest provider, Rocky Mountain Power. Downed power lines hampered travel by rail and road, and schools have cancelled in-person and online classes.

Elaine Clark contributed to this report.

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