Climate change: Western winters are getting warmer, not colder

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Temperatures in the West are returning to more wintry conditions after an unusually warm start to the year.

But it’s not just the few weeks of 2022 that have felt a bit warmer than normal, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And climate scientists say it will take more than a cold snap and some late-season snow this year to reverse the impact of a trend that has been going on for years.

“Hot temperature records exceed cold temperature records,” said Karin Gleason, a climatologist at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. “It varies from month to month, but the general trend is that we see hot records being set more frequently than cold records.”

All western states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming have experienced above-average temperatures every January since 2018.

Since 2000, January 11 out of 22, or half of all Januarys, have had temperatures above the historical average in every western state.

February also appears to be one of the hottest on record in the West, experts say, although official data won’t be released until early March.

And December records were broken in Montana, Washington and Wyoming, signaling the region was set for a warmer-than-usual winter, the data showed. Montana also had the warmest January for the season in the West, with average temperatures for the month being 5.4 degrees above the historical average.

Warmer winters, even a few degrees, can spell disaster for the snowpack, on which the West depends for water year-round.

Now, with a hot start to the year, scientists like Daniel Swain, an atmospheric climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, are concerned about what this means for the mega-drought the West has already known.

“Hot temperatures and climate change basically made (the mega-drought) about 40-50% worse than it would have been,” he said. “In fact, so much so that it probably wouldn’t have been considered a mega-drought if not for the warming we’ve observed and the increasing loss of water through evaporation in the atmosphere.”

While unusually warm or record-breaking temperatures at any time of the year can be disruptive, a few degrees of variation around the freezing threshold of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, which is “super sensitive to even relatively small changes,” has “d huge implications” for the rest of the year, Swain said.

“Winter is the time of year when there is this specific temperature threshold, you are either above freezing or below freezing,” he said. “And if you move from one side of that threshold to the other, you start to see huge, huge changes.”

This shift means that what should be snow is now rain, depleting the western snow supply, plunging the region into the throes of drought and increased wildfire risk in due to dry vegetation and soil.

“Early spring thaw increases the depletion of the water supply before summer, when it is most needed,” Gleason said. “Warmer temperatures mean more evaporation, which dries out vegetation, forests and depletes soil moisture. This can increase the intensity and duration of dry spells and help improve the wildfire season.

January records

State Fahrenheit Temperature Year set
State Fahrenheit Temperature Year set
Arizona 63 2003
California 63 2014
Colorado 45.4 1986
Idaho 39.7 1953
Montana 39.7 2006
New Mexico 55.9 1986
Nevada 52.6 2003
Oregon 46.3 2015
Utah 46.2 2003
Washington 42.6 1953
Wyoming 40.1 nineteen eighty one

Gleason said climate change is altering the global “temperature neighborhood” we live in by increasing the average temperature and altering the chances of experiencing warmer extremes.

The West is one of the major regions of the country that is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the United States, she said.

The region has recently seen a boost from unseasonably warm weather and a cold winter — variability that points to the growing effects of climate change, Swain said.

“Earth does not warm uniformly – some places, seasons, and even times of day warm faster than others,” nonprofit climate analysis group Climatic signals noted. “Climate change has led to more frequent warm winters in the western United States, while the eastern United States is experiencing cold winters.”

This trend is part of the bigger picture of climate change that people need to be aware of, Swain and Gleason said.

“A month or even a year isn’t enough to tell us where things are going in the long term,” he said. “In terms of temperature records, for better or for worse, we are all in for the same race globally. It is a global problem that will require a global solution.

No one in the West can afford to ignore the consequences of a currently warming winter, Swain said.

“This is something that’s emerging as a really important and urgent conversation that we’ve been putting off for many years hoping things would get better on their own,” he said. “Instead, over that period, they actually got worse. He really went from predicting the future of a few decades ago to being realistic about the present.

On an individual level, Swain said it’s time to talk about climate change with friends and family in a communal conversation, even in the context of winter sports like the Olympics or the shrinking climate. Great Salt Lake.

“What we need to do is demand better choices and the ability to make better choices from a climate perspective,” he said, “and make it much easier for people to make choices that are good for the climate and good for their communities at the same time.”

K. Sophie Will is a data and graphics contributor for Deseret News. @ksophiewill

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