Many scientists have been predicting that effects from climate change in the Southwest will be especially severe, Utah in particular.
In January, Moab’s temperatures never rose above freezing for the entire month. With pipes freezing all over town, Ron Pierce, Moab’s weather historian, was among many old timers who had never seen anything like it.
“As far as I can remember, it’s the coldest spell we’ve had in a long, long time,” said Jayne Belnap.
Belnap is one of the scientists at the Moab research station of the Southwest Biological Science Center, says she is not surprised that there is local “colding” in the midst of global warming.
“It was freezing cold this year. What do you mean, global warming? And so, you know, there’s education about that. But I think part of the problem with desert environments is we live in extremes. But I do, I talk about it as global weirding,” Belnap said.
And that is the weird thing about climate change. As the planet is expected to heat up over the next century, local microclimates might change in unexpected ways. It will require communities like Moab to adapt to their own specific challenges says Jeff Foster, Moab’s public works director.
“If our temperatures are going to continue this direction, that we come up with new standards that cover a colder temperature climate,” Foster said.
Two seasons ago, Moab’s uranium pile cleanup was threatened by flooding. John Weisheit, conservation director for the advocacy group Living Rivers, fears this was just a taste of what’s to come.
“The point is, freaky weather happens, you know, so the question you have to ask is, what’s the frequency, and what’s the magnitude,” Weisheit said. “We are going to get major floods, and it’s going to affect Moab in particular, because if that pile is not moved in time it’s going to liquefy, get lifted up and sent into Lake Powell.”
While activists conclude that what we know already is a call to action, climate scientists seem to largely agree that much more study needs to be done. To that end, the Moab research station conducts climate manipulation studies at several locations around the area. Sasha Reed is a research ecologist.
“We’re concerned about the Colorado Plateau, and how the plants and animals and organisms will respond to that,” Reed said.
On various small plots, Reed uses infrared warming lamps to mimic higher temperatures, and sheets of glass to block precipitation, simulating less rainfall. They record changes to soil and ecological systems over the long-term, in the hopes of predicting effects of climate change. Ultimately, the goal is to learn how to sustain and restore ecosystems, and provide a scientific basis for future land management decisions.
“There isn’t this consistency in change in climate, and that makes thinking about land management and making decisions that much harder. And it makes the experiments we do harder too, because we have to have that inconsistency in the experiment,” Reed said.
What really matters to most people is how climate change will affect them, says Mike Duniway, soil ecologist on the Moab team. I asked him, at what point will the climate models help someone, for example, decide whether to plant grapes in a particular Utah valley.
“There’s a big challenge to talk about downscaling the global climate change models. And so trying to downscale those to figure out what’s going to be happening on your vineyard is a huge challenge. I mean there’s all kinds of uncertainty with the models,” Duniway said.
With so many unknowns, major public planning for climate change, on a regional or even local level, is still rare in Utah. But local residents know the dust storms are getting worse and weather is getting crazy. And Weisheit thinks it’s time to get serious.
“For some reason we think we’re immune to that because we have technology, we have smart people and we have lots of money and we can fix our way out of this. You know, this could all be taken away from us, like Fukushima was taken away from Japan,” Weisheit said.
Yet Belnap thinks there is no need to fear the worst.
“We're not talking about Armageddon or the Apocalypse. It's not like suddenly areas like around Moab are going to turn into the Sahara Desert, without a plant in site,” Belnap said.
Still, some groups have taken matters into their own hands and are already developing possible solutions. In Moab, environmental groups have established a “climate action plan,” which includes the Canyonlands Watershed Council, where there is an ongoing dialogue among local government and green groups about how to make Moab more resistant to climate change.
*This story is brought to you by EXPLORE Utah Science. The mission of EXPLORE Utah Science is to uncover science stories that matter to Utahns. EXPLORE was founded under the belief that the public needs to know about locally driven research, discoveries, and commercialization, and how these innovations could affect their health, the economy, and the future.