Climate change, higher overall temperatures and expectations for an unusual third consecutive year with La Niña conditions could all combine to bring another warm, dry winter to southern Utah and the rest of the American West.
Lake Powell, Lake Mead and the Great Salt Lake are all at historic lows after years of drought and increased use by growing human populations, and none are expected to get much relief this winter, according to new long-range federal forecasts.
The models suggest higher-than-average temperatures and lower-than-average precipitation across the entire region this year, according to a slate of scientists who presented in a meeting Tuesday hosted by multiple government agencies, including the National Integrated Drought Information System.
“Even though uncertainty abounds with these regional forecasts, long-term I would (expect) it to trend like this,” said Peter Goble, a climatologist and Water Availability Specialist with the Colorado Climate Center. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”
About 94% of the entire Intermountain West region was abnormally dry for this time of year, despite a heavy monsoon rain season that had doused places like southwestern Utah with sometimes heavy rainstorms for much of the last two months. Regionwide, 68% of the area was technically under drought conditions, as defined by federal agencies.
Southwestern Utah sits right in the middle of a large zone across the West that models show is likely to have a warm, dry winter season,
Another dry winter would only exacerbate the crisis-level efforts to protect the West’s major water sources. Powell and Mead were only 34% full compared to their historic 1981-2020 averages and they were expected to drop further over the next year.
“We’ve been at a record low since about mid-April of last year,” Goble said.
Farther north at Great Salt Lake, the lake reached a record-low 4,189 feet as of the latest measurement, about six feet lower than it was just two years ago.
Christine Rumsey, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Utah Water Science Center, said the state had seen a large-scale cooperative effort from both government agencies and outside groups to try and find solutions, but in the short-term there was little hope of seeing the lake rise much over the next year.
“We expect the lake to keep dropping and hit a new historic low in the fall, probably in October or November,” she said.
La Niña ‘triple dip’
Meteorologists say that for the third straight year, La Niña will persist throughout the winter in the Northern Hemisphere. This is the first “triple dip” La Niña of the century, according to an update from the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization.
This La Niña began in September 2020.
The La Niña climate pattern is a natural cycle marked by cooler-than-average ocean water in the central Pacific Ocean. It is one of the main drivers of weather in the United States and around the world, especially during late fall, winter and early spring.
It’s the opposite to the more well-known El Niño, which occurs when water in the Pacific Ocean is warmer than average.
A typical La Niña winter in the U.S. brings cold and snow to the Northwest and unusually dry conditions to most of the nation’s southern tier, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. The Southeast and mid-Atlantic also tend to see warmer-than-average temperatures during a La Niña winter.
David DeMille writes about southwestern Utah for The Spectrum & Daily News, a USA TODAY Network newsroom based in St. George. Follow him at @SpectrumDeMille or contact him at [email protected] To support and sustain this work, please subscribe today.