Explore Utah Science

Credit 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.

Today’s program is by request. Aleq in Southern Utah emailed us to ask for more science on Access Utah and to suggest that we talk about the great work being done in Utah in paleontology.

Our guests today include State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland; and Andrew Milner and Jerald Harris, authors of “Tracks in Deep Time: The St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm.”

snowy mountains
April Ashland / Utah Public Radio

It is over 50 degrees, and it’s mid-February here in the winter backcountry of Millcreek Canyon, just east of Salt Lake City.  The snowpack is soft and slushy.  And it’s melting.  Whether this is climate change or not, skiers should be disappointed by this early melt-out.  For millions of people living in the Wasatch front valleys below, things might be ok, but only as long as the early snowmelt can still supply enough fresh water.  

Some think that warming temperatures are not the whole story here.

“There’s this popular misconception that snow melts faster because of increases in temperature,” says Tom Painter, who spoke at a TED talk last year.  “Now, it’s true that that’s the case.  But that’s not the primary driver.  The primary driver is absorbed solar radiation.”

Painter is a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and used to work at the University of Utah. He says the thing forcing snow to melt earlier is not just the temperature, but also darkly colored particles of dust.  

“There are little particles in there. Little black carbon particles, dust particles, pollen, that are just slowly absorbing a little bit of radiation, and putting that into the snow.”

When dust gets blown onto the snow’s surface, Painter says it reduces the snow’s albedo, or its ability to reflect back the sun’s radiation, causing it to melt faster.  About 10 years ago he and other researchers in Colorado began studying how dust from the four corners area was affecting the alpine snowpack of the San Juan Mountains in western Colorado, a major source of water feeding the Colorado river.


Antibiotics are our main line of defense against bacteria that can make us very sick. But that defense is breaking down as the microorganisms are increasingly becoming resistant to our most effective drugs. How we deal with this threat may determine if we will become at risk of dying from infectious diseases that have been kept in check for nearly a century.

“It’s rare that we know of someone in the United States who dies of an infectious disease. This used to not be the case, a hundred years ago infectious diseases used to be the primary cause of death,” said Matt Mulvey, a University of Utah researcher.

Mulvey studies bacteria and is trying to understand how they cause disease and become resistant to antibiotics. He said the Centers for Disease Control recently reported that every year around 2 million people acquire antibiotic resistant infections and 23,000 die from these infections.

“It does scare me actually, it does scare me more and more. One of my daughters and my wife recently had pneumonia and the first thing that goes through my mind is, geez I hope this is susceptible to antibiotics,” Mulvey said.

Western Soundscape Archive

Thousands of animal and ambient sounds from 11 western states have been recorded and archived in a digital library in Utah. While fascinating in their own right, sounds can also be used to track environmental change.

Some people like to hunt animals, not to kill them, but to record the sounds they make.

moran eye center charitable surgery day

The cost of removing a cataract - between $2,000-$4000 - is prohibitive for many, leaving them to struggle with a completely curable form of blindness. The Moran Eye Center has started a Charitable Surgery Day, to help restore sight to some Utahns.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2010, there were 20 million people who had become blind because of cataracts; that’s half of the world’s blind population.

Jeff Pettey is an Ophthalmologist at the University of Utah Moran Eye Center. He said many kinds of blindness, including that caused by cataracts, can be fixed.

"Eighty percent of blindness in the world is either curable or preventable. And 90 percent of the blindness is in developing nations, but we have a lot here, I mean among us. This is a place where there’s no reason anyone should be walking around with preventable or curable blindness," Pettey said.

But they are. Barbara Simons’ vision has been impaired by cataracts for around seven or eight years.

"It's hard to see and read and I haven't driven a car for a while and I trip a lot," Simons said.

Simons doesn't have insurance and doesn't have the money to pay for cataract surgery on her own. Until recently, she was homeless. She receives health and eye care at the Fourth Street Clinic in downtown Salt Lake City. Kristy Chambers is the CEO for the clinic, and said the clinic tries to find specialty care for their patients when needed.

Richard Normann begins every morning at his University of Utah office by making a cup of espresso. Like so many of us, the morning routine and the caffeine jolt helps to get his brain cells firing. But he knows a little more about this than most people.
Normann invented an electrode device that can be implanted into a human brain 25 years ago. It was the first of its kind and is capable of allowing researchers to listen to a group of neurons communicate with each other. Previously people used single wires and could only hear the signal of one or a small number of neurons.

Lyme disease in Utah

May 10, 2013

Spring is the season for hiking, biking, camping, and for ticks. Lyme disease is the most common tick-born disease in the U.S., but is it in Utah? Kim Schuske from Explore Utah Science has the story.

Krystal Snyder has been diagnosed with Lyme disease, a bacterial infection introduced by the bite of a tick.

The first sign of Lyme disease for some is a characteristic bulls-eye rash that develops within about a week after they are bitten. If caught early, the disease is relatively easy to cure with antibiotics.

Hundreds of high school students participated in a regional sporting event at the Maverick Center in West Valley City last weekend. But in this competition, the players were robots. Kim Schuske from Explore Utah Science has the story.

“Lets’ go, alright drivers take control…”

And with that, the robots were off, trying to fling Frisbees into four goals at each end of the field.

Forty-four teams from 10 states built robots that competed in the challenge, 19 of those teams were from Utah. The hard work of designing, building, and testing the robots took more than six weeks of intensive collaboration between team members, says Sheyne Anderson of the DaVinci Dragons of Ogden.   

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.

The scarce water supply in Utah's West Desert is already impacted by agricultural use and fluctuations in weather. Some worry that a pipeline to Las Vegas would lead to an environmental disaster.

In the arid high desert of western Utah, on the border between Utah and Nevada, water is a valuable commodity.