Utah Faces More than 9 Degree Increase Over Next 100 Years
Fri, Aug 28 2009 at 11:18 AM
By The Nature Conservancy
Utah could heat up by 9.4 degrees F from climate change by the end of the century – threatening the state’s more than $7 billion outdoor recreation, wildlife, tourism and agriculture industries, increasing the risk of heat-related deaths and leading to the disappearance of wildlife and compromised water quality for major rivers, according to a new analysis by The Nature Conservancy.
“From the food we put on the table to plant and animal species that make our state unique, this study shows that none of us is immune if temperatures continue to rise as projected. We can now see that climate change will directly hit us here in Utah, in our own back yards,” said Dave Livermore, director of the Utah chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “If we do not act immediately, our children and grandchildren will live in a very different world than we do today.”
Among the impacts Utah could feel under the temperature increases projected by the Conservancy’s analysis are:
• Damaging Dust & Water Losses: Higher temperatures and prolonged drought will reduce plant cover and leave soils loose and more vulnerable to erosion. Wind-borne dust from these loose soils has both regional and local impacts.
• Water: Recent science generated in Utah shows that dust deposition on western snowpacks accelerates snowmelt, causing earlier, faster runoffs—and resulting in serious impacts to regional water supplies and quality.
• Soil fertility: Dust decreases soil fertility, as nutrients become attached to dust particles and then blown away.
• Air quality: Dust obscures visibility on highways and endangers travelers, and fine particles can cause respiratory disease.
• Major Industry Impacts: Hundreds of thousands of jobs are directly linked to our state’s natural resources. The state’s outdoor recreation industry contributes $5.8 billion annually to the state economy, supports 65,000 jobs across the state, generates nearly $300 million in annual state tax revenues, and produces nearly $4 billion annually in retail sales and services across Utah, accounting for almost 5% of the gross state product.
• Endangered Wildlife: Changing weather and climate patterns will impact vegetation patterns and could alter entire ecosystems. Scientists suspect certain plant and animal species may be particularly vulnerable to these changes, and could struggle to adapt and survive. Utah’s state grass, Indian Ricegrass (Stipa hymenoides) could be more susceptible to climate changes, as well as alpine plants and animals, such as the pika (Ochotona princep).
• Agricultural Losses: Domestic cattle operations could face a growing lack of available grass and surface water. Decreased soil moisture reduces native plant cover and increased erosion will reduce soil fertility and the nutrient value of forage.
• Invasives and Fire: Soil erosion and disturbance expedites the invasion of cheatgrass and other invasive species that choke out native vegetation. As drought years increase, annual grasses do not germinate, leaving soils barren and vulnerable to erosion. Predictions indicate that increased temperature will extend typical fire seasons, with more fires occurring earlier and later in a given year, with greater fire severity and related economic losses.
The Conservancy’s temperature analysis looked at three emission scenarios based on low, medium and high rates of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere over the next 100 years. Under the highest emission scenario, which assumes carbon dioxide levels will continue to grow Utah’s average annual temperature would spike by 9.4 degrees F.
Even under the lowest emission scenario, which assumes the unlikely possibility that the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere each year will decrease, Utah will heat up by 6.5 degrees F.
Scientists warn that a global temperature increase of the 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) or more will lead to irreversible impacts to the Earth’s lands, waters, wildlife and human communities.
“We’ve got to act now,” said Dr. Barry Baker, Climate Change Scientist for the Conservancy’s Utah Chapter. “There’s still time to develop land and water management strategies that will enable us to adapt and possibly delay the negative impacts of climate change and protect Utah’s communities and natural resources.”
The Nature Conservancy is taking steps to protect the great state of Utah from the effects of climate change, including the following key projects:
The Canyonlands Research Center (CRC) – The Conservancy has joined forces with a suite of powerful public and private partners to launch a new initiative dedicated to climate change and land use science on the Colorado Plateau. Solutions from this research center will arm decision-makers in Utah with new information to adapt to challenges such as diminished Colorado River water quantity, grazing and recreation impacts, and invasive species.
Based out of the Conservancy’s Dugout Ranch, adjacent to Canyonlands National Park, the CRC combines several critical elements, including a location along an important monsoonal boundary, years of existing climate data, and a unique partnership with rancher Heidi Redd to use cattle as a research tool.
With partners on board, research projects already underway, and a virtual center set to go live this winter, the Conservancy is finalizing plans for the Center’s physical facility and hopes to break ground in 2010. Partners include: U.S. Geological Survey, Utah State University, National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and Indian Creek Cattle Company.
“The Canyonlands Research Center has the potential to generate some of the world’s most important science on the interactions of climate change and land use,” said Joel Tuhy, Director of Science for the Conservancy’s Utah Chapter.
The Utah Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment – The Conservancy is conducting the first study of its kind in this area to evaluate actual climate change across the state at a fine, local scale. Scientists are identifying and mapping the plants, animals and ecological systems in Utah that are deemed to be most vulnerable to changes in climate. The Conservancy hopes to contribute to a new knowledge base that may be used by conservation practitioners and natural resource agencies in order to best manage our critical natural resources in the face of likely changes we have never seen before.
“We’re excited about conducting this study in Utah for several reasons,” said Baker. “Land managers are eager for science-based data about how to help Utah’s species adapt to climate change. This study could provide our first meaningful local answers.”
To see projections on how monthly temperatures and precipitation may change for Utah visit www.climatewizard.org, a new web tool that, for the first time ever, allows people to use an interactive map to explore past and projected climate change data on their computers.
With Climate Wizard, users can zoom in on Utah to quickly see how temperatures and precipitation may change by month, season or year under different emission scenarios. The Climate Wizard was developed by The Nature Conservancy, the University of Washington and the University of Southern Mississippi.
“Here in Utah, we are already experiencing the effects of a changing climate—the drought is upon us, and the temperatures are rising,” said Livermore. “There is no silver bullet, but our citizens believe in being proactive and prepared, and if we work together now, I think we can meet this challenge head on.”
The U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on energy and climate legislation this fall.
MNN is working with The Nature Conservancy to bring you state-by-state environmental information.