Utah's Weather And Climate - Dry Times Ahead

Jun 30, 2020

Map of the western United States showing drought conditions on June 23, 2020, with Utah (moderate to severe drought) in the center of the map region.
Credit Adam Hartman / NOAA/NWS/NCEP/CPC

Despite the recent rains and cooler temperatures across Utah, the month of June has seen hotter than normal temperatures across much of the state. Are we experiencing normal weather variability or is it climate change? 

“Yeah, for this summer, most likely Utah will be drier - (the) entire (state of) Utah.”

That’s Yoshimitsu Chikamoto predicting a dry summer for us. Chikamoto is an assistant professor at Utah State University and a researcher for the Utah Climate Center — or U-C-C. 

Utah agriculture relies on climate scientists like Chikamoto and his colleages for information on different timescales. For instance, daily or weekly predictions of temperature and rain are considered weather, while seasonal or longer-term forecasting is considered climate. He said it can get confusing. 

“I still can understand many people confuse weather and climate change, and it’s scary for the farmer as well. Weather is definitively individual day events," he said.

Chikamoto said scientists use climate models to forecast both weather and climate, but in different ways. Global climate forecasting is based on linking atmospheric and oceanic processes and conditions. That results in the longer-term predictions.  

For weather forecasting, only atmospheric models are used because ocean conditions are more stable over periods from days to weeks. An initial storm location is used, and the models are based on probability. This is why weather is typically reported for about a week at a time. 

Drought conditions can critically impact Utah, leading to wildfires and reducing lake water levels. Chikamoto said the Utah Climate Center forecasts and monitors drought conditions. He said this helps determine the period of a drought. 

“So, in some research in our group, in the Utah Climate Center we try to identify why sometimes we have multi-year drought event and sometimes droughts are just long," he said.

Chikamoto said forecasting and understanding droughts requires predicting both future temperature and precipitation. He said temperature is relatively easy to predict, but precipitation is highly variable over every timescale from days to years to decades. But it is important for Utah to develop adaptive strategies for land and water management during those dry years.