Explore Utah Science - Explore Utah Science - Environment http://exploreutahscience.org Tue, 23 Jan 2018 14:34:57 -0700 en-gb How Do You Find Water in the Desert? Southern Utah Faces Tough Choices http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/153-how-do-you-find-water-in-the-desert-southern-utah-faces-tough-choices http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/153-how-do-you-find-water-in-the-desert-southern-utah-faces-tough-choices Wikimedia commons--Sean Shebs

How will Utah deal with increased demand for water in the future? Build more infrastructure, conserve, or both? That debate is now taking place in southern Utah.

How will Utah deal with increased demand for water in the future? Build more infrastructure, conserve, or both? That debate is now taking place in southern Utah. Ross Chambless has the latest story in our "Follow the Flow" series.

Utah legislators and Central Utah Water Conservancy District staff recently toured some of the reservoirs, pipelines, and tunnels that have nourished Utah's cities of 3 million people over the last half century. The Central Utah Water Project was an ambitious federally funded project to divert water from the upper basin of the Colorado River to the Wasatch Front. It cost over $3 billion and took 50 years to complete. But it now delivers about 82 billion gallons of water annually for farming and municipal and industrial users.

Rich Tullis, an Assistant General manager with the Water Conservation District, was the tour guide speaking to the group atop the Jordanelle Dam, near Heber, Utah.

"When it came online, it first filled in 1997. And all of our delivery contracts started in 2008. It was just in the nick of time. Just in the nick of time. Without this reservoir here, there would be massive, massive shortages in Salt Lake, Utah counties now."

Forecasters tell lawmakers that Utah will need to find even more water to meet the needs of the state's growing population. It's expected that by 2040 Utah will need to make room for another 2.5 million people. State planners say the first swelling populace that may exhaust its water supply is Utah's Dixie in this dry, southwest part of the state — also a popular vacation destination.

St. George and other cities in this red rock region rely solely on the Virgin River watershed for water to drink and to maintain a golfer's paradise. The region's population – now around 150,000 - has tripled since 1990. Yet, people here consume about 270 gallons per person, per day – an average that's higher than most other cities in the American Southwest. By comparison, Phoenix – which averages the same amount of annual rainfall but hotter temperatures – consumes 184 gallons per person, per day.

"We expect that we just have to cut back to what a reasonable use is in order to make it into the future," says Eric Millis, Director of Utah's Division of Water Resources.

He says conservation programs have already helped Washington County to surpass its goal to cut consumption by 25 percent from 2000 to 2025. But adds that this and other measures won't be enough to meet demands of the future population. That's why in 2006 the Utah legislature directed his agency to begin developing a plan for a Lake Powell pipeline to divert more water from the Colorado River.

"If you look at Washington County's water supply, the project we're looking at is being needed by 2023. They're getting close to the limit of their developed supply," says Millis. "They've got a few projects they could build that could help. They'll have water reuse, the conversion of agricultural water. They'll have those sorts of things that are built into our projects of the supply. But they still need this Lake Powell pipeline, we believe."

The pipeline is estimated to cost over a billion dollars, to carry 28 billion gallons of water 139 miles to residents in Washington and Kane Counties. But others question the entire notion that St. George is running out of water.

"My friends... (laughing), that's not a water shortage. That's playing golf in the wrong place."

Dan McCool is a professor of political science at the University of Utah, and obviously a pipeline critic. The proposal has pit pipeline proponents against people who think Dixie residents should live within their means. McCool points out that water shortages in California and Nevada indicate that the actual supply of Colorado River water is much less than what was allocated to states over 90 years ago. And climate change is making a bad problem even worse.

"All the models predict that Lake Powell will effectively dry up and go to dead pool sometime in this century. Probably by 2040 or 2050," says McCool. "So when St. George says we'll need that water in about 2020, well, that's just about the worst possible time to build a pipeline. And whenever they say it'll cost a billion dollars, a good rule of thumb on water projects is it will cost twice as much as what they tell you. Spend two to three billion dollars for a pipeline from a reservoir that's projected to go dry. Does that sound like a sound investment of the taxpayers money?"

With the Federal government now 17.5 trillion dollars in debt, and little hope of action from Congress, McCool says the era of big Federally-funded water projects is over. That means all Utahns will have to foot the bill. Still, he says Utah policymakers need to address a more fundamental issue.

"You can't have infinite growth in a desert. So when they say we need to divert all the rivers for the next three million people to show up. Well then, what about the three million after that, and the 10 million after that, and the 300 million after that? You can't do it," says McCool. "The problems of finite growth are now obvious to the city of Las Vegas. And it needs to become obvious to the city of St. George. St. George cannot have three million people in it. It can't handle it. There is no water," he adds.

Water Resources director Eric Millis says the state is only looking as far as 2060. And by then, he says, Washington County could have as many as 600,000 people.

"That's quadrupling the population," says Millis. "You could say, well, can't we just conserve our way into the future and not build the Lake Powell pipeline? Well, here's what happens in my mind. You've got four times the population with a given water supply. You reduce your water use by 75 percent, is the only way I think that 'conservation only' option could work, and still sustain that population. So you get down to the point where you've really just met the needs for indoor use, and absolutely no water for outdoor use."

But some disagree with even the most basic of these conclusions, including the assumption that people in the future will use as much water per person as we do now. Research by the Pacific Institute, a science-based think tank, found that from 1990 to 2008 other arid regions such as Southern Nevada, Phoenix, and Albuquerque actually delivered less water despite significant population growth. The U.S. Geological Survey also found the same pattern nationally.

In 2013, the group Western Resources Advocates submitted an alternative proposal. They argued that Washington County's population forecasts are inflated, and the County could meet all its future supply needs by 2060 with conservation, water reuse, and agricultural transfers for as little as one-third the cost of the pipeline. Key to their plan is getting Washington County to reduce per capita water use by one percent every year through 2060—a 40 percent total reduction.

"To expect people to reduce at one percent a year is not asking very much," says Professor Johanna Endter-Wada, who researches water conservation at Utah State University.

She says along with appropriate landscaping, analytical tools that gauge whether people are watering appropriately can help fix wasteful behavior. So can implementing conservation-oriented water rate structures that alert customers when they move up to a higher price bracket.

"People are motivated to conserve for a number of different reasons. For a wide variety of reasons: they want to conserve to save on their water bill; they want to conserve to act responsibly; they want to only use their fair share," says Endter-Wada. "They also want to conserve because they know the benefits of conserving water, in terms of keeping water in streams and making it available for other needs is important."

But she adds that part of the conundrum is that water purveyors need to sell water in order to pay for new projects, and for any needed upgrades to aging infrastructure.

"So it creates a situation in which there is a big incentive on their part to use as much water as possible," explains Endter-Wada. "So I think we need to incrementally move forward in the future, so that we aren't developing new supplies that then have the obligation to be sold in order to repay the cost of the infrastructure developed to provide them."

The Lake Powell pipeline may reach completion of a $25 million environmental impact study by the end of 2016. Even though predicting the future is not an exact science, Utahns will have serious decisions to make. Can we reduce per capita water consumption even while maintaining our high quality of life for a growing population? Will it be wise, or even possible, to divert more water from the diminishing Colorado River? How would we pay for it? Can we adapt our cities, our economy and our culture to live with the water we already have? In other words, can we live within our means?

"Follow the Flow" is made possible by iUtah, a National Science Foundation–funded statewide effort to maintain and improve water sustainability.


rosschambless@hotmail.com (Ross Chambless) Environment Thu, 11 Dec 2014 10:17:40 -0700
Beaver Dam Mapping App Now Available for Citizen Scientists http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/148-citizen-scientists-can-now-use-an-app-to-help-map-beaver-dams-in-utah http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/148-citizen-scientists-can-now-use-an-app-to-help-map-beaver-dams-in-utah Beaver Dam Mapping App Now Available for Citizen Scientists

Scientists are studying how beavers could be used as a tool for stream restoration and are looking to you for help.

Although western farmers and irrigators have long deemed beavers to be pests, scientists are studying how these dam building rodents could be used as a tool for stream restoration and mitigating impacts of climate change on Utah's water supply. Watershed scientists at Utah State University have created a smart phone app and are asking people out hiking in the wilderness to track these furry builders so they can better model which water ways would benefit the most from their help. This story is part of our "Follow the Flow" series that examines our relationship to watersheds in Utah.

Utah State University scientist Joe Wheaton studies forces that impact Utah's waterways – specifically beavers, those furry overgrown rodents with the buckteeth and the flat flapping tail.

"I doubt we'll see any today, unless we get lucky and sneak up on one," says Wheaton.

A few weeks ago he brought me up Logan Canyon to see what beavers are doing here. We've also come with some other researchers and a pair of eager black labs.

Though historically prized for their fur, in recent decades scientists have begun seeing beavers as ecological heroes. In 2010 the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources formulated a beaver management plan that sees beaver as a tool for restoring incised and degraded streams.

"Where we're standing now is on a little bridge across Spawn Creek, and... what this is, is an abandoned beaver dam," says Wheaton.

He points to what's left of a short wall woven with sediment and aspen branches – chewed like corn on the cob - about ten feet away. Here it once held back a shallow pool of stream water.

"What happened is they built a dam, roughly a meter high. And it's filled in with sediment."

This sediment, he says has raised the whole level of what was an incised and degraded stream in just a few years. Through the clear water you can see small round rocks – gravel. This stream is a stronghold for cutthroat trout, a protected native fish, and the sediment has created a safe place for the fish to lay their eggs, he says.

"It's like perfect spawning gravels, right. It's filled to the brim with sediment. And since that dam is breached and they've abandoned it, now what's left behind is really good spawning habitat," says Wheaton.

Currently most Utah streams struggle with sediment and nutrient overload. Only 30 percent of in-stream habitat for fish and other aquatic life in Utah's streams is considered "good", with most streams listed as "poor" or in "fair" condition, according to a preliminary Utah Division of Water Quality report this year. Here Wheaton and the other scientists are researching how beaver dams help sustain fish populations, and help trap sediment that recovers riparian habitat.

"Why do we want beaver dams? We don't one hundred percent care so much about the beavers," explains Greene, who is a researcher and educator at Utah State University Extension. "But what they're doing is they're taking the water and now connecting it to these other areas and they're pushing it out into the riparian zone. So now we have this really complex habitat that's good for the birds. It's good for the amphibians. It's good for the plants. So it makes really unique habitat."

Watershed scientists like Joe Wheaton are also assessing whether beavers - and the water-keeping dams that they build - could indeed help mitigate some impacts of a declining snowpack. Snowpacks in the Mountain West – including the Wasatch Range - provide millions of people with water, and recent studies suggest climate change is behind a withering trend over the last century.

"Certainly a number of people have speculated that if you have a bunch of beaver dams on the landscape, they're sort of providing a similar function to what a larger snowpack would, that provides this store of water that slowly releases it out over time," says Wheaton.

Hiking our way up along the stream, we cross over a cattle guard into a fenced area. About ten years ago the Forest Service, realizing this high elevation tributary was ideal habitat for cutthroat trout, set the area aside and fenced it off from cattle grazing and forbade beaver fur trapping, which still happens today, although with some regulations.

This recovering area now gives Wheaton and his team a chance to ground-truth a new mapping model called the Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool or BRAT, using an iPad. The BRAT predicts the capacity for beaver dams on every perennial stream in the state using nationally available satellite imagery of all the drainage networks. Wheaton's iPad is showing the stream we're walking along. It looks like a thread with different colored segments.

"Red means an area where you can't have any beaver dams. Orange is an area where it's not great, but where we might see up to one dam per kilometer. The yellow are occasional, we might see between one to four dams. Green we would see between five to 15. And blue is the best, is pervasive. Those are short reaches that could support up to 40 dams per kilometer. So that's like a dam every 40 or 50 meters," explains Wheaton.

We're now entering an area the BRAT model identifies as a blue segment, or "pervasive" along the stream. And sure enough, here we've entered into a complex chain of ponds and beaver dams. The shallow stream water is spread out everywhere, and fresh groves of aspen, willow and green grasses are all growing up around us. Wheaton points out the telltale signs of an active colony of beavers living here: a mound of sticks that's their lodge; a skid trail that marks where the beavers drag the aspen trees into the water; and a network of underground tunnels.

"You're standing right above the tunnel to their lodge. See there's an underwater entrance, and it goes to the great big mound of sticks, which the dogs have smelled that there's probably some beaver in there."

None of this beaver activity was here ten years ago, according to Wheaton. Given time, and a stream protected from overgrazing, he says beavers will move downstream, which could mean more water gets stored on the mountain for longer periods.

"What we have done with the model is try and predict where in the landscape could beavers be. Even in places they are not now. What's the capacity of these different streams to support what sort of densities of dams," says Wheaton.

For these scientists, checking every perennial stream in Utah for beaver dams will be a time consuming job. That's why they've also made a smart phone app to enlist help from volunteer citizen scientists – basically anyone out hiking or fishing in Utah who might encounter beaver activity.

"It allows them to very easily take a photo and send us the GPS coordinates of beaver activity," says Greene.

"If we're getting a lot of volunteers reporting back that we're seeing lots of beavers in this area and the model predicted that's a good area for beavers, then that means the model is working well. If they're finding lots of beavers in areas the model says there shouldn't be beavers, then maybe the model isn't as accurate as we'd like it to be," Greene adds.

Still, not everyone thinks beavers belong everywhere. Historically beavers have been reviled – and often killed – for being pests that cut down trees, stop up creeks and culverts, cause floods, or take water from farmers downstream. A few years ago Wheaton says he was asked to help water managers in Park City resolve a problem with beavers in their city.

"They just did what everyone did with beaver if there were any. You'd blow up their dams with dynamite and kill 'em, right. And this wasn't a policy. It was just what they did as routine maintenance. And roughly five years ago some local residents, there was some beaver ponds that were built. And the residents liked it, and all the wildlife that came around it. And then they complained to the city when the city went in to do what they normally do."

So the Park City workers left the beaver dams alone, and they didn't kill the beavers. Soon the number of beaver dams grew, and the beavers built their dams higher. This eventually caused flooding of roads and houses. And the beavers upset neighbors by harvesting ornamental yard trees. So in 2013 Park City officials asked Wheaton to help them draft an adaptive beaver management plan.

"For example, you could go in and put in a 'pond leveler', or a 'caster master', and that would lower the water level, and alleviate the flooding, and still allow the beaver to be there," says Wheaton. "Or fencing around ornamental trees, etc. And then the worst case scenario is, OK, we've tried these living with beaver strategies or we're in an area that's so sensitive, like a canal diversion, we absolutely cannot allow beaver. So that's when we'll live trap nuisance beaver and relocate them to areas, either within the city limits or beyond, where they want beaver for restoration or the ecosystem services they provide."

We're now approaching a dam that Wheaton says has been here since the 1940's. If this were near a road or housing, it surely would've have been destroyed by now. It's over a meter high, like a fortress wall of sun-baked sticks holding back an Olympic-sized pool of water. And nearby is a giant lodge.

That is the mother of all lodges. It looks like a damn two-story beaver lodge.

I'm just in the middle of asking Wheaton another question, when we see him.

"There he is! He's swimming around right by the lodge. You see his nose," asks Wheaton. "Oh yeah, that's a beaver! And the dogs are in pursuit."

The beaver swims at the surface just for a moment, before splashing down his tail and disappearing.

These beaver buffs hope interested citizens will help to document beaver dams - and beavers - when they find them all across Utah. They also hope this information will help people to better manage and appreciate what the beavers do for our fragile water systems... that is, even if they'd rather stay out of sight.

This story was made possible by iUTAH, a National Science Foundation Funded statewide effort to maintain and improve water sustainability.

rosschambless@hotmail.com (Ross Chambless) Environment Sun, 13 Jul 2014 20:05:02 -0600
Desert Dust Events Could Trigger Early Wasatch Snowmelt http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/144-desert-dust-events-could-trigger-early-wasatch-snowmelt http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/144-desert-dust-events-could-trigger-early-wasatch-snowmelt Desert Dust Events Could Trigger Early Wasatch Snowmelt

Dust events occur regularly each spring along the Wasatch Front, and they could be impacting how much water is ultimately available for Utah residents.

Dust events occur regularly each spring along the Wasatch Front, and they could be impacting how much water is ultimately available for Utah residents. This is the first story by Explore Utah Science in a series called "Follow the Flow", that examines ongoing research to maintain the sustainability of Utah's precious watersheds.

It is over 50 degrees, and it's mid February here in the winter backcountry of Millcreek Canyon, just east of Salt Lake City. The snowpack is soft and slushy. And it's melting. Whether this is climate change or not, skiers should be disappointed by this early melt-out. For millions of people living in the Wasatch Front valleys below, things might be ok, but only as long as the early snowmelt can still supply enough fresh water.

Some think that warming temperatures are not the whole story here.

"There's this popular misconception that snow melts faster because of increases in temperature," says Tom Painter, who spoke at a TED talk last year. "Now, it's true that that's the case. But that's not the primary driver. The primary driver is absorbed solar radiation."

Painter is a geophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and used to work at the University of Utah. He says the thing forcing snow to melt earlier is not just the temperature, but also darkly colored particles of dust.

"There are little particles in there. Little black carbon particles, dust particles, pollen, that are just slowly absorbing a little bit of radiation, and putting that into the snow."

When dust gets blown onto the snow's surface, Painter says it reduces the snow's albedo, or its ability to reflect back the sun's radiation, causing it to melt faster. About ten years ago he and other researchers in Colorado began studying how dust from the four corners area was affecting the alpine snowpack of the San Juan Mountains in western Colorado, a major source of water feeding the Colorado river.

"We recognized dust was having really significant impact on snowmelt processes here in our study area, let alone perhaps the rest of Colorado," said Chris Landry, executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Colorado.

Back in 2003, when Painter approached Landry about wanting to study how dust affects snowmelt, there was very little science on the subject.

"Very quickly we understood that water managers in the west were... most anxious to understand whether or not snow melt yields, or actual runoff quantities were being affected – especially if they were being reduced," says Landry.

Their research showed that dust loading on the snowpack caused the peak runoff to occur about 3 weeks earlier than it had historically. But most important for western water managers, was their finding that, as a result, mountain soil and plants were exposed earlier, and consuming snowmelt water sooner. This was reducing the Colorado River's annual runoff by more than one billion cubic meters, or 5 percent on average, each year.

Understandably, researchers back in Utah began to wonder if Wasatch Mountain snowpacks were meeting the same fate.

Olivia Miller, a geology graduate at the University of Utah, points to satellite images of dust events.

"This is from 2009, March 4th, and you can zoom in and see little plumes right here."

The dust originates from places in southwestern Utah and Nevada, with names like the Sevier Dry Lake Bed, Milford Valley, Black Rock Desert, and the Carson Sink. Although these dried remnants of the ancient Lake Bonneville are seen as one cause, lots of data show that agriculture and cattle grazing contribute greatly to soil surface disturbance, along with off-road vehicles and military training activities. Burned areas also produce dust, such as the site of the Milford Flat fire - Utah's largest wildfire ever – that's been a major source of dust since 2007.

"So this is down in the Sevier Desert. That is the Milford Fire scar," says Miller. "The sources get activated down here. And they just travel with the wind, get mixed in the atmosphere, and they encounter the Wasatch Mountains, so the dust can get deposited on the snow."

80 years of recorded observations at the Salt Lake airport show an average of 4.3 dust events occurring each year. Most of the events occur in the spring, when cold fronts blow in from the west. In recent years, Miller and other Utah graduate students have taken to studying the thin and brown horizontal lines of dust in the Wasatch's backcountry snowpack.

"You can dig down and see... it's like stratigraphy in geology. You can say, 'This event happened on January 2nd, and this event happened on February 16th.' So you can kind of map that out. Which is pretty neat. The snowpack is great for preserving these events," says Miller.

To verify the dust sources, Miller collected samples from the snow and examined it for traces of the chemical element strontium.

"It's kind of like a fingerprint. You can use it as a tracer. So the strontium in the dust, you can tell where that dust source was."

She then took core samples from older trees nearby in the Wasatch Front canyons.

"Most of the strontium that trees take up is from dust," says Miller. "Like, 90 percent in some cases. So the dust is really having a big impact on the ecosystems here."

Miller's findings indicate that dust has always been a part of the Wasatch Front ecosystem. Indeed, environmental scientists increasingly recognize dust as an important player for ecosystems around the world. But how a more quickly melting snowpack will affect the ecology of the Wasatch remains a question.

"This is preliminary, but what we're seeing is there's a longer growing period and longer flowering period," says Lafe Connor, a doctoral student at Brigham Young University.

Connor wanted to see how soil and plants would respond to a faster melting snowpack. He scattered dust over plots to force early melting at two different elevations in Fairview Canyon in Sanpete County. And he saw that after the snow melted early, plants flowered early, which meant sometimes they aborted their flowers when the soil water also went dry early. He says this leads to more questions about the impacts on pollinators, for example.

"There could be disconnect between when plants flowers, and when the pollinators arrive, like hummingbirds... is that going to affect the hummingbirds when they arrive? Are they going to have the same resources that they need," asks Connor. "It's an important thing to understand. Are these systems going to be disrupted?"

Rick Gill, a professor at BYU adds, "So what we see is we have these interacting processes. The timing of snowmelt isn't just what happens right after snowmelt, but how that sets up the entire growing season in terms of water availability."

Gill and others at BYU plan to work with other Utah researchers through a collaborative project to continue to study soils and plants, as well as the quality and quantity of snowpacks along the Wasatch front beginning this year.

"We are also measuring the dust, the albedo of the dust... modeling per se how that is potentially changing the water availability patterns in these three watersheds across the Wasatch front. We have real-time instruments measuring flow is one the big ones. So we can hopefully start linking dust to see how much water is in these different watersheds," says Zach Aanderud, a professor of plant and wildlife sciences at BYU.

Utah scientists seek to share with water managers the connections that link deserts and dust, with snowpacks and water.

There is a renewed sense of urgency since signs point to an even drier and dustier future, as scientists predict temperatures will increase by up to 7 degrees by the end of the century. Meanwhile, proposals like Nevada's Snake Valley water pipeline, threaten to parch another patch of desert by pumping groundwater near the Utah border, to Las Vegas.

With growing populations, and rising temperatures, the dust is not likely to settle when it comes to fighting for water in the west.

This is the first in a five part series by Explore Utah Science on research to maintain and protect Utah's water. The "Follow the Flow" series is made possible by iUtah, a National Science Foundation–funded statewide effort to maintain and improve water sustainability.

rosschambless@hotmail.com (Ross Chambless) Environment Tue, 04 Mar 2014 11:17:15 -0700
Colorado Named the Most Endangered River - KCPW http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/114-colorado-named-the-most-endangered-river-kcpw http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/114-colorado-named-the-most-endangered-river-kcpw Colorado Named the Most Endangered River - KCPW

(Audio) Extensive irrigation projects and dams are heavily impacting one of the nation's most iconic and important rivers, the Colorado.

(KCPW News) A national conservation organization has named the Colorado River the nation’s most endangered river. In a report released on Wednesday, the group American Rivers said that the Colorado is being overused and under-protected.

KCPW’s Roger McDonough reports.

scarpenter@kcpw.org (Roger McDonough) Environment Thu, 25 Apr 2013 00:00:00 -0600
Governor Herbert Says No to Snake Valley Agreement--KCPW http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/106-governor-to-make-snake-valley-decision-soon http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/106-governor-to-make-snake-valley-decision-soon Governor Herbert Says No to Snake Valley Agreement--KCPW

(Audio) Governor Gary Herbert announced that he will not sign a water sharing agreement with the state of Nevada.

Governor Gary Herbert announced that he will not sign a water sharing agreement with the state of Nevada. Among other things, the agreement would have authorized the construction of a pipeline from the Snake Valley in Utah's West Desert to Las Vegas. KCPW's Roger McDonough spoke with the Governor shortly after the decision was announced.


Listen to the story by KCPW's Roger McDonough.


scarpenter@kcpw.org (Roger McDonough) Environment Fri, 29 Mar 2013 08:41:37 -0600
Weathering Change: Global Warming or Global Weirding? http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/102-global-warming-or-global-weirding http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/102-global-warming-or-global-weirding Weathering Change: Global Warming or Global Weirding?

(Audio) Over the next century, local microclimates within Utah will change in unexpected ways. Groups in Moab have different ways of dealing with this unknown.

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.


Use the audio player on this page to listen to the audio story

jonkovash@gmail.com (Jon Kovash) Environment Mon, 18 Mar 2013 00:00:00 -0600
Weathering Change: Mitigation, Adaptation, and Suffering http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/95-weathering-change-mitigation-adaptation-and-suffering http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/95-weathering-change-mitigation-adaptation-and-suffering Weathering Change: Mitigation, Adaptation, and Suffering

(Audio) Researcher Lonnie Thompson says a changing environment will be a part of our future. Now how do we deal with it?

In the first installment of our Weathering Change series, Glaciers Melt, Water Rises, renowned climatologist Lonnie Thompson gives a first-hand account of the world's retreating glaciers. Now he addresses possible responses: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.


LONNIE THOMPSON: What are our options in society for dealing with climate change?

Mitigation is taking steps where we would reduce our emissions of green house gasses. Or we can talk about how do we capture those and sequester them: take them out of the atmosphere. Or we can talk about what we might do with geoengineering to reduce the impacts of warming on the earth system. Realizing that each of those, particularly geoengineering, has the potential of unintended consequences when you implement anything on a large scale.

But, these are things that we need to be considering.

Adaptation means looking forward in time at the change that's already underway and will be taking place. The problem is we have a 20 to 30 year lag, so we've already built in a change. We're going to lose a large percentage of the world's mountain glaciers.

There are countries now, like Peru, where 76% of their power is hydroelectric. They have two-thirds of their people living out on the deserts of the west coast depending on rivers. In many cases [the rivers are] sourced from glaciers in the Andes, and all of those glaciers are reducing in size.

These are changes that are going to come, so there needs to be plans in place. How are you going to adapt to this changing water supply, this changing energy supply? You need to start planning for those things now.

KIM SCHUSKE: So have you seen movement in that way?

LONNIE THOMPSON: I've heard a number of discussions on national security. You know, we have at least 20 nations on the planet that could topple. If you're talking about national security the worse case scenario is a world with lots of failed states.

What pushes them over that threshold? It can be a major drought. It can be flood like in Pakistan last year. At the time that a government can no longer respond to the needs of it's citizenry, you have the chance of a failed state.

These are things that we need to look at when we're considering adapting.

And then of course the third option is suffering.

History would tell us that those who suffer are usually those who are least responsible for the changes that are taking place, and they also have the least resources to adapt to those changes.

KIM SCHUSKE: So what are some of the possibilities of things that we could change?

LONNIE THOMPSON: The fact is that 80% of the energy we use to light our streets goes to space and it has no value. We need to be more efficient about how we use the energy we're already consuming.

If we were using that energy, rather than lighting space, to charge electric cars, then we could reduce our energy consumption during the day when we drive to work and the like.

I think there are a lot of things out there that we can do when we really get serious about changing the track that we're on.

KIM SCHUSKE: But the cost of limiting carbon and things like that, is that going to be the block?

LONNIE THOMPSON: I think any reasonable person or nation looking at the energy needs, and growth in energy needs, realizes we have to have other sources of energy to fuel the economies of the future.

The sooner we start making major investments in those, the sooner we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and what that implies for our future climate.

KIM SCHUSKE: So when you started getting into this field did you expect it to end up in the place that it's at now? That governments have to start making decisions about what they're going to do?

LONNIE THOMPSON: I've tried to look back at the past at environmental issues and I can give a couple examples.

You can look at soil conservation in the United States and you can look at, when did we actually take action on this issue?

Well it wasn't until April 19, 1935. A bright sunny afternoon in Washington, D.C. Hugh Bennett is there. There was a hearing of senators, and he gets a call from Chicago. There was twelve million tons of dust that fell on Chicago from a dust storm coming out of Oklahoma. Knowing that storms go from the west to the east, pretty soon the skies start to darken in Washington, D.C. All of the senators are looking out the window, and the next day the Soil Conservation Act is passed.

Suddenly it was in their face and they saw that we have to do something here, and they did.

KIM SCHUSKE: So what will that be for this?

LONNIE THOMPSON: It's a very good question and in some ways the scale of the problem is much larger because it's not just the U.S., it's a global issue.

And it has this lag time in it of 20 to 30 years, so that even when you decide to act, you will have already built in significant change and adaptation that will have to take place.

The longer we wait, the greater the change, the adaptation, and the suffering will be.


Lonnie Thompson is Distinguished Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and a Research Scientist in the Byrd Polar Research Center at The Ohio State University. Last year he underwent a heart transplant but he still has plans to go to Tibet where, according to National Geographic, he hopes to find the oldest ice on earth.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Environment Thu, 28 Feb 2013 08:08:52 -0700
Weathering Change: Glaciers Melt, Water Rises http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/93-weathering-change-glaciers-melt-water-rises http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/93-weathering-change-glaciers-melt-water-rises Weathering Change: Glaciers Melt, Water Rises

(Audio) Sea level has risen and fallen throughout history but is only problematic now that hundreds of millions live at sea level, says researcher Lonnie Thompson.

Changing weather patterns, melting glaciers, longer more severe droughts, and rising storm surges are in our future according to scientists. Today we start a series, Weathering Change, looking at how some people are thinking about this new reality.


Lonnie Thompson is a scientist who drills ice cores from some of the highest mountain top glaciers in the world. He was profiled as one of the world’s top explorers in National Geographic’s January 125th Anniversary issue. I talked to him about how higher temperatures are affecting tropical glaciers, found in high mountains near the equator. He describes the dramatic changes he has seen over his 38 year-career.

KIM SCHUSKE: What have you seen in your work that tells you how fast this is moving?

LONNIE THOMPSON: I think probably the advantage that I have is the fact that I have been able to conduct 57 expeditions in 16 different countries.

And I think when you see change taking place, it really makes it real. I think if more people lived where they could actually see a glacier, and then make those observations, then there would be a lot less debate about if it’s happening or not.

KIM SCHUSKE: What have you seen?

LONNIE THOMPSON: Well if we look at Peru, the Quelccaya Ice Cap where there was the first tropical glacier that I visited back in 1974. That ice cap has lost 25% of its area since I was a graduate student. I mean, it’s the largest tropical ice cap on earth.

In more recent years, things are coming out from the retreating margin. Plants are in growth positions that haven’t seen the light of day for over 5,000 years. They tell us that this glacier hasn’t been smaller for at least 5,000 years. That kind of puts it into a perspective.

KIM SCHUSKE: It’s just happening all across the globe? That the ice is melting?

LONNIE THOMPSON: You look up in the Brooks Range in Alaska, 100% of glaciers in that range are retreating in today’s world. In Southeast Alaska, 98% of the glaciers are retreating in that zone.

If you’re in the Himalayas, there are over 46,000 glaciers there. Not too many of them have been studied, but our Chinese colleagues are monitoring 680 of those glaciers. 95% of those glaciers are retreating in today’s world. If you go to the Alps, where we have our longest documented histories, 99% of the glaciers are retreating. If you go in the tropics, where we’ve been spending a lot of time working on the glaciers, 100% of the glaciers are retreating in that zone.

So, it’s the scale of this ice loss that we’re really concerned about.

KIM SCHUSKE: What are the consequences of this loss?

LONNIE THOMPSON: Well the consequences are that glaciers are just water on land, frozen water. And when they melt the water makes its way through the rivers into the worlds oceans and they contribute to sea level rise.

If we were to remove all the ice that’s now on land, sea level would rise 70 meters [230 feet] just from the melting of the ice. Then there would be a thermal expansion of that water, simply because it’s warmer, so that you’re looking at a world where the geography would be totally different than the world we live in.

KIM SCHUSKE: But it’s not likely that all of the ice is going to melt anytime soon?

LONNIE THOMPSON: Yeah, well that’s our hope, yes.

KIM SCHUSKE: How much ice would cause major damage if it melted?

LONNIE THOMPSON: Our projections are that temperatures of our planet on average will be 3 degrees Celsius [5.4 degrees Fahrenheit] warmer at the surface by 2100, at the current track that we’re on.

And if you look at the history of our planet you look at the last time we were 3 degrees warmer, 2 to 3 degrees warmer, you have to go back to the Pleistocene, about three million years ago.

And then if you ask what was sea level three million years ago? We’re looking at numbers between 25 meters and 35 meters [82-155 feet] higher than today.

KIM SCHUSKE: Can you just give an example? If 8% of the ice melted, what would that do to the coasts of the U.S.?

LONNIE THOMPSON: Well if you’re looking at losing 8%, you’re looking at a sea level rise somewhere between 5-6 meters [16-19 feet], so you would lose half the state of Florida. You would lose a large part of Louisiana, you would lose a number of cities at sea level, large parts of them like New York City, Miami would be totally gone.

And of course what makes it so different today than in the past - Because glaciers have grown and retreated through the history of our planet. There have been times when we had no ice on land and sea level was much higher. - But we’ve never had 7 billion people that have built all this infrastructure at sea level.

It’s that risk that makes our time, and the changes that are occurring in today’s world, so important.

Lonnie Thompson is Distinguished Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and a Research Scientist in the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University. Last year he underwent a heart transplant, but still plans to go to Tibet next where, according to National Geographic, he hopes to find the oldest ice on earth. The interview took place in 2011.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Environment Mon, 25 Feb 2013 00:00:00 -0700
Bills Unveiled that Address Air Quality--KCPW http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/90-bills-unveiled-that-address-air-quality http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/90-bills-unveiled-that-address-air-quality Bills Unveiled that Address Air Quality--KCPW

On Monday Utah Democrats announced legislation aimed at addressing air pollution in the state.

On Monday Utah Democrats announced legislation aimed at addressing air pollution in the state. The announcement comes after several groups have demanded action from lawmakers and the governor to improve northern Utah's notoriously poor air quality. KCPW's Roger McDonough reports.

scarpenter@kcpw.org (Roger McDonough) Environment Tue, 12 Feb 2013 09:45:55 -0700
Canyonlands Resolution Held for a Year--KCPW http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/88-canyonland-resolution-held-for-a-year http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/88-canyonland-resolution-held-for-a-year Canyonlands Resolution Held for a Year--KCPW

A resolution calling for greater protection of Utah's Canyonlands was held over for a year of study on Thursday after Republican lawmakers questioned the intent of the legislation.

A resolution calling for greater protection of Utah's Canyonlands was held over for a year of study on Thursday after Republican lawmakers questioned the intent of the legislation.

KCPW's Roger McDonough reports.

scarpenter@kcpw.org (Roger McDonough) Environment Fri, 08 Feb 2013 09:08:19 -0700