Study: Snowpack Shifts as Wasatch Warms | KUER 90.1

Study: Snowpack Shifts as Wasatch Warms

May 30, 2016

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.