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Utah's wildfires, record heat and low snowpack — welcome to climate change, experts say

SALT LAKE CITY — A congressionally mandated climate change report predicts dire consequences for the United States if greenhouse gas emissions are not immediately reduced, adding that some of the most severe impacts will occur in Utah and other parts of the Southwest.

Utah experts say those changes are not on the doorstep, they're already here.

"We are just on the fringe of this. It is only going to get more intense with droughts that are longer and hotter, and snow becoming less common until we have no snow at all," predicted Brian McInerney, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

The National Climate Change Assessment Report released Nov. 23 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program points to an increase in national temperature of 1.8 degrees over the last century, and the fact that 16 of the last 17 years are the warmest ever recorded by humans.

“This report is a wake-up call," said Dave Livermore, Utah state director of The Nature Conservancy. "More than ever, we need all hands on deck to deal with the threat of climate change. This is more than an environmental issue. It's also an economic and social issue that affects our quality of life. Motivated by this report, we need to do more in Utah and throughout the West to curb emissions and move toward a sustainable energy future."

The report's findings include:

• The season heat wave length in many U.S. cities has increased by 40 days since 1960.

• Large declines in Western states' snowpacks have occurred from 1955 to 2016.

• Atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to human-caused warming, has increased 40 percent since the industrial era.

• Alaska is warming faster than any other U.S. state and has warmed twice as fast as the global average since the mid-20th century.

In Utah, summer temperatures are sizzling as well, the nighttime lows are getting higher, and the state continues to struggle with the impacts of protracted drought.

"We are continually seeing these heat records broken," McInerney said. "Three summers ago, we had 21 straight days with temperatures of 95 degrees or above."

This baking of the Southwest with relentless heat and drought is challenging water supplies, sparking record-setting wildfire seasons and compromising air quality.

Those effects hit the pocketbook, requiring money to pay for lost property and ravaged landscapes from fires, higher water rates to promote conservation, more industrial and residential controls for pollution, and added trips to the emergency room for heat stress or air pollution-caused health problems.

In Utah, this year's wildfire season and drought severely impacted the cattle industry, which will pass on higher costs to consumers.

Doug Perry, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said many ranchers were forced to sell off as much as one-third of their inventory, and rangeland will take up to three years to recover from being scorched.

In 2010, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands reports that 64,781 acres burned in Utah. This year, 486,063 acres burned.

Utah lawmakers surprised critics earlier this year when they endorsed a resolution recognizing a "changing climate" and urging emissions reductions. That was just eight years after the Utah Legislature passed a resolution calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to halt its carbon dioxide reduction programs until the science was substantiated.

The shift comes as both political and societal pressure mounts to reduce carbon emissions, even in conservative Utah, said Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy.

"The science and impacts of climate change are becoming more and more clear," Wright said.

The passage of the climate change resolution by lawmakers is a response to that, she added.

"It acknowledges the risks and acknowledges that we need to start looking for solutions. … As we move beyond the partisanship, Utah is poised to be a leader because we are pragmatic and we are caring. We care about the next generation," she said.

The state, however, does not have a "climate change action plan" or a requirement that agencies adopt one.

"Our agencies are constantly adapting to environmental change, and while we don't have a formal climate change policy for state agencies, we work constantly to address environmental issues using the best science available when we make administrative rules and regulations," said Paul Edwards, Gov. Gary Herbert's deputy chief of staff.

"It is always worth looking at the most recent reports, and the National Climate Change Assessment, like other such assessments, will be considered during the policy-making process," Edwards added.

In 2012, the Utah Department of Health released a 64-page report on climate change and public health in Utah, noting areas of vulnerability and what public tracking of climatic impacts are taking place.

Many Utah agencies are actively involved in work to mitigate on the ground impacts from climate change.

"One of the greatest impacts we can have from a natural resources perspective is to make sure our watersheds and landscapes are healthy," said Nathan Schwebach, spokesman with the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

"This is the aim and intent of our Watershed Restoration Initiative," he said. "Healthy landscapes also allow us to efficiently catch and ultimately store precipitation we receive and develop fire adaptive areas."

The Utah Division of Air Quality, in rules designed to reduce volatile organic compounds around gas and oil development in particular, is showing reductions in the emission of methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gasses, according to Bryce Bird, division director.

Water, pollution worries

As the Colorado River Basin continues to dry up, critical storage reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead remain at historic lows.

Water managers around the West are scrambling to find new approaches for managing a resource that is becoming increasingly challenged in an era of climate change.

In December 2017, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman called on the seven Colorado River Basin states and downstream managers in the Lower Colorado Basin to continue developing drought contingency plans in response to ongoing historic drought conditions in the basin.

Cities and communities in Utah are working on conservation plans to become more water wise.

University of Utah professor Paul Brooks, a researcher of mountain hydrology, is part of an ongoing, collaborative project with Salt Lake City's Division of Public Utilities to figure out new ways to adapt to variable snowpack years.

"Water managers throughout the West tend to be a pretty proactive bunch," he said, adding that he hopes the national climate change report serves as a springboard for thoughtful discussion among politicians and public policy makers.

Those water managers, as they strategize on how to deal with dwindling or changing supplies, work in atmosphere where political and legal frameworks often tie their hands, he said.

"It really is about re-imagining how we will deal with our water supply in the future."

Instead of planning year to year on what those holdover supplies are, Brooks said it may be more realistic to develop plans that are five years out that account for year-to-year variability.

The heat and drought are also fueling unprecedented algal bloom outbreaks, driving the formation of more summer smog and wildfires are swamping Utah with unhealthy air pollutants.

As the Great Salt Lake continues to shrink to historic lows, winds whip up alkaline dust, adding to air pollution woes along the Wasatch Front.

Bird said the last two summers have experienced more high ozone days than normal — pollution he says is not emissions driven but caused by lack of cloud cover.

"Emissions are lower now, but we are not seeing the afternoon thunder showers like we used to."

Bugged by climate

Warming temperatures and more extreme rain events — one recent May in Utah experienced 400 percent of normal rainfall — are not only prolonging the mosquito season, but helping them expand their range.

"When it comes to mosquitoes and their control, seasons are starting earlier than they had previously and going longer than they previously had, and that is a direct correlation with the climate change we are seeing," said Ary Faraji, manager of the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District and president-elect of the American Mosquito Control Association.

Mosquitoes love the sunlight and heat, carry diseases and their populations are shifting because of changes in climate, he said.

The warmer the temperatures, the faster they reproduce, and some are moving into higher elevations as those regions fail to cool.

The Western tree hole mosquito has been found in the Avenues area of Salt Lake City and is making its way into the canyons, Faraji said. It "loves to bite people and animals," and is an efficient vector for dog heartworm infections

West Nile virus — which killed a Utahn this year — was first detected in the United States in 1999 and in Utah in 2003.

By 2006, the Utah Department of Health's Dallin Peterson said up to 160 people tested positive.

The virus carried by mosquitoes was first seen in Uganda but spread to Asia, the Middle East and then Europe.

"West Nile virus is just the tip of the iceberg," Faraji said.

Last year, Faraji said someone walked into his office with a specimen of the blood-feeding kissing bug found in the Salt Lake Valley.

"It was pretty eye-opening," he said, noting they hadn't been detected in northern Utah before.

Kissing bugs can cause anaphylactic shock in people who are allergic to their saliva and carry a parasite in their feces that can be harmful to humans.

Faraji worries that invasive vector-borne disease carriers will take root in Utah.

"Once they become established, they are extremely difficult to get rid of. It is a whole new ballgame."

Peterson, a vector-borne/zoonotic disease epidemiologist with the health department, said officials are keeping a watchful eye for the eventual arrival of the mosquito that carries St. Louis encephalitis.

"It is something we will see. It causes swelling of the brain. They found it this year in multiple states, including Arizona and California. … It can be fatal."

Faraji said there are multiple factors at play when it comes to the onset of vector-borne diseases and the shifting populations of the carriers, including human movement, transport of goods and habitat destruction.

"But climate change certainly has a large role to play."

He worries that funding — and public policy attention — will not keep pace to combat a problem he says will only continue to increase.

"There is not a program in this country that is adequately prepared to deal with this problem," he said. "We don't want to put a Band-Aid on the wound after that wound has occurred. We want to prevent that wound from occurring in the first place."

The climate change assessment report is the result of a 1990 act mandating the Global Change Research Program deliver a report to Congress and the U.S. president every four years that analyzes trends in global change, both human induced and natural. It is volume two, following up on a 2017 report. A team of 300 federal and nonfederal experts were involved in the research.