For skiers and snowboarders fresh off a lackluster snow season, the research to be discussed Wednesday evening by state climatologist Robert Gillies that Utah’s winters are becoming wetter and wetter probably comes as no surprise. But for Gillies, the wet winters have troubling implications for all Utahns that go beyond just slushy ski slopes.
Gillies, (pictured) a Utah State University professor and director of the Utah Climate Center, will be discussing research at a Wednesday talk at Park City’s Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter. Gillies and his colleagues have analyzed Utah’s historic precipitation from various data sets to see what the trends are when it comes to Utah’s snowfall, including using never-before-used research methods.
His findings? The "Greatest Snow on Earth" is becoming the best rain and slush on Earth.
“What has happened is that there has been a 9 percent decrease in snow over the last 50 years,” Gillies says. “And more of that is coming as rain than as snow.” This trend is also intensifying Gillies, says, which should give water managers in the state cause for concern, since Utah has historically counted on spring snowpack to provide for the state’s water. But first about the science.
Gillies is no stranger to the accusation that claims of declining snow precipitation have been challenged in the state as lacking scientific backing. “So we decided to look at this problem from many different angles,” Gillies says. Gillies employed different and distinct research metrics to corroborate his findings, cross-checking observation-based research methods with satellite-gathered data and with synoptic analysis, which analyzes all the kinds of pressure systems that have brought precipitation into Utah. “That sort of analysis has never been done before,” Gillies says of the pioneering synoptic analysis.
The result,, he says is confirmation from independent study methods that Utah’s snowfall is indeed changing in composition and coming in more frequently as rain. Gillies says that water managers in the state should take heed of this development as it may mean having to adopt a new game plan when it comes to conserving water in the state. While Gillies does not claim to be a water-management expert, he argues that with traditional snowpack providing groundwater to fulfill Utahns water needs, water managers may need to reconsider their practices and infrastructure. More reservoirs or other technology and practices may need to be transitioned in to gather water in a way Utah has not been accustomed to.
“If you have got less snow and more precipitation coming in as rain that saturates the ground very quickly, then there are potential changes in flooding conditions and changes in the way water is being delivered,” Gillies says. “Water managers have to think about how to use a different resource for the future.”
To hear Gillies’ full presentation on his findings, check out his talk on “Utah’s Changing Climate Regime” Wednesday, April 11, at 7 p.m. at the Swaner EcoCenter, 1258 Center Drive, Park City.
The event is free and open to the public and RSVPs are encouraged by e-mailing SwanerEcoCenter@USU.Edu or by calling 435-649-1767.