Weathering Change: Global Warming or Global Weirding?

18 March 2013
Published in Environment
Written by  Jon Kovash
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Weathering Change: Global Warming or Global Weirding? USGS/Erika Geiger

In the final part of our series, Weathering Change,we look at how groups in Moab are responding to predictions that extreme weather conditions will arise in the coming years.


In January, Moab’s temperatures never rose above freezing for the entire month. With pipes freezing all over town, many old timers had never seen anything like it.

“As far as I can remember, it’s the coldest spell we’ve had in a long, long time,” says Ron Pierce, Moab’s weather historian.

Jayne Belnap, a scientist at the Moab research station of the Southwest Biological Science Center, says she is not surprised that there is local “colding” in the midst of global warming. “It was freezing cold this year. What do you mean, global warming? And so, there’s education about that. But I think part of the problem with desert environments is we live in extremes. I talk about it as global weirding.”

That is the weird thing about climate change. As the planet is expected to heat up over the next century by 4-7 degrees Farenheit, it is also expected that local microclimates will change in unexpected ways.

Fluctuations in weather will require communities like Moab to adapt to their own specific challenges. “If our temperatures are going to continue this direction, we need to come up with new standards that cover a colder temperature climate,” says Jeff Foster, Moab’s public works director.

To help Utah communities look towards the future, the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University, chronicled 50 years of climate change in the state. The study concludes that two main phenomena have been affecting Utah’s climate. A warming trend is causing more precipitation to fall as rain, and less as snow. And an abnormal high-pressure system has developed over the west that is partly responsible for extreme weather, like intense rainstorms.

These types of extreme weather events can have consequences. Two seasons ago, Moab’s uranium pile cleanup was threatened by flooding. Some fear this was just a taste of what’s to come.

“The point is, freaky weather happens. So the question you have to ask is, ‘What’s the frequency, and what’s the magnitude?’” says John Weisheit, conservation director for the advocacy group Living Rivers. “We are going to get major floods, and it’s going to affect Moab in particular. Because if that pile is not moved in time it’s going to liquefy, get lifted up, and sent into Lake Powell.”

While activists conclude that what we know already is a call to action, climate scientists seem to largely agree that much more study needs to be done. To that end, the Moab research station conducts climate manipulation studies at several locations around Moab.

Research ecologist Sasha Reed is researching how the plants and animals of the Colorado Plateau will respond to climate change. On various small plots, she uses infrared warming lamps to mimic higher temperatures, and sheets of glass to block precipitation, simulating less rainfall. Her group records changes to soil and ecological systems over the long-term, in the hopes of predicting effects of climate change.

Ultimately, the goal is to learn how to sustain and restore ecosystems, and provide a scientific basis for future land management decisions. “There isn’t this consistency in change in climate, and that makes thinking about land management and making decisions that much harder. It makes the experiments we do harder too, because we have to have that inconsistency in the experiment,” says Reed.

What really matters to most people is how climate change will affect them, says Mike Duniway, soil ecologist on the Moab team. He says it’s still difficult to address a hypothetical scenario such as determining when climate models will help someone decide whether to plant grapes in a particular Utah valley. “There’s a big challenge to talk about downscaling the global climate change models. And so trying to downscale those to figure out what’s going to be happening on your vineyard is a huge challenge. There’s all kinds of uncertainty with the models.”

With so many unknowns, major public planning for climate change, on a regional or local level, still seems far off. But local residents know the dust storms are getting worse and weather is getting crazy.

Weisheit thinks it’s time to get serious. “For some reason we think we’re immune to that because we have technology, we have smart people and we have lots of money and we can fix our way out of this. You know, this could all be taken away from us, like Fukushima was taken away from Japan.”

“We're not talking about Armageddon or the Apocalypse,” counters Belnap. “It's not like suddenly areas like around Moab are going to turn into the Sahara Desert, without a plant in site.”

Still, some groups have taken matters into their own hands and are already developing possible solutions. The Natural Resources Defense Council says immediate action to reduce fossil fuel and increase renewable energy use can help curb global warming. They cite over 250 "greenhouse gas abatement technologies" that may mitigate change, at little or no net cost.

In Moab, environmental groups have established a “climate action plan,” which includes the Canyonlands Watershed Council, where there is an ongoing dialogue among local government and green groups about how to make Moab more resistant to climate change.

If the bad weather and droughts continue, there’s no doubt that others will start trying to find solutions as well.


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