Think Utah’s winter is dry? Just wait

Utah Land

Utah Valley’s snow-less winter may be only the beginning of what’s to come.

A new study released last week reveals the second half of the 21st Century is expected to be dryer than it has been for the past 1,000 years — meaning that during the years 2050 to 2100, the Southwest United States will likely face what scientists are calling a “megadrought.”

The study’s authors say the dry conditions will be “driven primarily” by human-induced climate change.

That means the half-century will see less rainfall and snowfall. But not just that. Researchers say soil moisture will also dry up, and changes in evaporation will only dry out the soil more.

According to the study, there is an 80 percent chance of a megadrought in the Southwest and Great Plains areas.

Scientists define “megadrought” as a drought that last for 10 years or longer.

Toby Ault, an atmospheric scientist at Cornell University and co-author of the research, told reporters Thursday that if climate change goes unabated, the megadrought has a very likely chance of occurring.

Scientists say drinking water is the most vulnerable resource to be worried about.

Scientists have studied past droughts by looking at tree rings, analyzing how much rain fell hundreds of years ago.

According to the study, the Southwest and Great Plains areas experienced droughts in the 12th and 13th centuries, which makes the areas more susceptible to drought in the future. The study calls the area “crucial targets” in the historical record for severe droughts.

But scientists also told reporters that the prediction isn’t certain — weather conditions can always vary.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances. The authors for the study were Benjamin Cook, a research scientist for NASA, and Jason Smerdon, a research professor at Columbia University.

Utah Valley could get a taste of those dry days in the coming months. The valley’s water supply, which comes primarily from heavy snowpack in the mountains above Deer Creek and Jordanelle reservoirs is already far below normal.

According to the United State’s Department of Agriculture, snowpack in the Provo River drainage is just 73 percent of normal. February and March historically bring more snow to the high mountains, but far more than normal would be needed just to catch up.

There is a slight chance of snow in the forecast for later this week in the mountains, which could add a few inches to the snow pack.

Cook compared the expected drought to the Dust Bowl, which occurred in the 1930s.

“Natural droughts like the 1930s Dust Bowl and the current drought in the Southwest have historically lasted maybe a decade or a little less,” Ben Cook, climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

“What these results are saying is we’re going to get a drought similar to those events, but it is probably going to last at least 30 to 35 years,” Cook said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Source: Amy McDonald is the Politics and South County Reporter for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at (801) 344-2549 or amcdonald@heraldextra.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amymcdonald89