LOGAN, Utah — As the popular holiday song goes, many Utahns were dreaming of a White Christmas. Mother nature seemed all too happy to oblige this season, with that dream turning into a nightmare at times with icy road conditions, power outages and several feet of snow needing to be shoveled.
The snowstorms to begin the winter season may have people asking such questions as: Why has Utah experienced so many snowstorms? Where do these storms originate? How does this snow affect Utah’s water outlook for 2023 and beyond? Does this signal the beginning of the end of Utah’s drought? Utah State University researcher and assistant state climatologist Jon Meyer sat down with Utah State Today to explain the current weather conditions and what can be learned from the wet start to winter.
After years of low snow totals, why is Utah getting snow now?
The jet stream, the fast and narrow current of air flowing from west to east that directs storms across the Western U.S., has returned. After several years of the jet stream pushing many storms to the north or east of Utah, the jet stream has shifted and has been friendlier to Utah this year. And with its return, so come stronger winter storms; this is consistent with research undertaken in the Utah Climate Center that identified atmospheric dynamics that exist in the Western Pacific that define 6-year dry and wet phases for Northern Utah’s weather.
“We are seeing the jet stream return to our area, and that is something we haven’t seen a lot over the last couple of winters,” Meyer said. “When the jet stream returns, the storm tracks return. We’ve been in the middle of the highway of storm tracks, and it’s been consecutive active periods with very little break in between.”
During the first 6-8 weeks of the winter season, Meyer estimates that Utah is already at 80% of the state’s median April 1st snowpack, with more snow still expected. Utah has seen several low pressure systems bring snow and high pressure systems have been scarce so far.
“Our snowpack is way above average right now and we are almost to what we would consider to be a normal year, with still almost three months left of snow accumulation to go,” he said.
But why did snow come so heavily so quickly?
The short answer is Utah caught a ride on the Pineapple Express. But what does that mean? It is a type of winter storm that typically begins as a Pacific low pressure system spinning near the islands of Alaska. As the storm moves downward toward the West coast, it gathers tropical moisture from the central Pacific. This moisture is concentrated into narrow bands which scientists refer to as atmospheric rivers– narrow corridors of atmospheric humidity that is much higher than in typical storms.
“Recently, many of our extreme precipitation events have been related to atmospheric rivers,” Meyer said. “We’ve had a couple of those this year, and that certainly has contributed to the big jumps in Utah’s snowpack. We’ve seen some pretty juicy Pineapple Express events.”
Usually, these atmospheric rivers get drawn onshore and run into the Sierra Nevada and other coastal mountain ranges in California. Occasionally, however, they travel north or south of the Californian ranges and in doing so, bring precipitation to Utah.
“In a really good year, Utah can have five, six or even seven of these events over the six months that comprise the cold season,” Meyer said. “In a dry year, we generally have none. However, an examination of the trends of the atmospheric rivers over the last 40 years, we’ve noticed that both the southerly and northerly intrusion events from these atmospheric rivers are increasing in their frequency.”
What have these storms done for the snowpack?
As of Jan. 16, 2023, Utah’s snowpack in many areas is more than 175% above normal. According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bear River is 169% above normal, while Ogden-Weber is 197% above normal and Provo-Utah Lake is 210% above normal. Even southern Utah is seeing an astounding 228% snowpack in the Southwest and 231% in Southeastern Utah.
“It’s been an absolute banner snowpack year to start the first half of this water year,” Meyer said. “We couldn’t have written a better script on how this would play out up to this point. In terms of historical data, we are in the top 90 percentile from where we have been in the last 50 years. So, this is not unprecedented, but from where we’ve been in the last 20 years, there’s only a handful of years that have looked like this up to this point.”
What does this mean for water in Utah? Is the drought over?
Not necessarily, but there is cautious optimism that this storm season could start turning the tide. Right now, that is to be determined by future winter storms and how the water table is affected during the summer months. According to Meyer, this wet and snowy start to 2023 is a good first step, but Utah must stack-up winter seasons of significant snow events. However, caution is warranted, as Utah’s winter season precipitation is changing both in timing and extent as a shift in the precipitation change from snow to rain is occurring as well as a shift in minimum temperatures both throughout the season and earlier in the melt-off part of the season.
“To get out of a drought like the one we've been in, you need consecutive positive seasons and consecutive positive years,” Meyer said. “I’ve used the phrase, ‘it's a marathon not a race’. We are right in the middle of that marathon, and we've had a great first start. But if summer and fall are really hot and really dry, then we lose a lot of what we've captured this spring. And if next winter it's not as great as this year has been so far, again we'll go right back into drought conditions.”
One need only look back to 2022 to see where caution must be used. During December 2021, Utah had a good weather month, sitting near 100% snowpack. However, the tide turned in January 2022 and beyond, as storms continued to miss Utah. That was followed by a hot and dry summer, which stressed water levels even more. While this winter is off to a good start, Meyer can’t rule out that 2023 won’t take the same turn.
“We are very optimistic right now on how much snowpack that we have, but that cautious optimism comes in the context of years where you can quickly evaporate and that weather pattern can regress to where we are no longer in the highway of the storm track,” he said.
As it stands now, Meyer and other climatologists have plenty of positivity that the snowfall will continue and that Utah will see some reservoir recharge.
“As we're standing right now, we're very optimistic for drought improvements across the board for the state of Utah,” he said. “The stream flow forecasts that have just come out to begin the year reflect the optimism in the snowpack. The degree of that improvement will depend on this season, the summer, the fall and consecutive snowpack accumulation seasons.”
Wait, so do we still need to conserve water?
Yes! Although a positive water year is good and signs point to Utah having an improved water outlook, reservoirs are still low. Moreover, who is to say when the next drought will hit the state. Experts agree that a long-term approach is still needed, because demand of water will only increase with population growth. Coupling that with climate change, which is a magnifier, can make droughts more unpredictable and longer lasting.
“When we look at the long-term record of our reservoir levels, precipitation inputs and projected population growth, there's growing concern about the supply and the demand on water,” Meyer said. “Supply is shrinking while demand is projected to increase. There are pressures on both supply and demand sides. Our reservoirs reflect our wet and dry phases, as I mentioned earlier. The concern that we see is each subsequent wet phase does not materialize in the same amount of reservoir recharge that the previous wet phase did. When you look on the long-term timescales of water security in Utah and water resource availability, great years like this, it's wonderful to have, but it's really kicking the can down the road just a little bit.”
Meyer believes that Utah will soon see a paradigm shift in its relationship to water. The sooner residents start doing all they can to conserve, the more ready they will be when conservation isn’t just a suggestion, but a requirement.
“The way that we use water culinarily inside of city limits as well as agriculturally in the rural areas is coming to a point where our supplies aren't going to be able to meet the demands during drought periods,” he said. “The earlier culturally that we can get used to the idea of more significant conservation efforts on the personal level and the individual level, the easier will be that transition to a new paradigm with our relationship to water.”
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