USU climatologist predicts Utah could be on the cusp of a drought cycle

A file photo of Utah Climate Center, Climatologist, Jon Meyer showing the state had exceptional poor rainfall in 2018.

LOGAN-Just about every meteorologist has stood at their satellite maps to show the next approaching storm. They line them up across the Pacific Ocean and talk about the pending precipitation. It seems like every storm moves around the Beehive State or we’ve just been getting a trickle of water here and there.

A tractor working the fields in Cornish kicks up a cloud of dust Nov. 3. It’s been a dry fall for farmers on the westside of the valley who depend on rain.

Jon Meyer, a climatologist and researcher at Utah State University, believes Utah is on the front edge of a drought cycle.

We’ve had an incredibly dry fall, which has reinforced the ongoing drought,” he said. “This year’s drought has been historically unprecedented for a large portion of the state.”

That is impressive, given the 2018 water year set the record for driest year the state has seen since records have been kept.

“Utah’s winter precipitation is controlled by a combination of many cycles that shape the region’s storm track, but the cycle that has the strongest correlation with our precipitation is referred to as a quasi-decadal oscillation (QDO) because it operates on a roughly five to seven year cycle,” Meyer said. “The back half of the 2010’s was what we’d refer to as the wet cycle so the current expectation here at the Utah Climate Center is that we’re likely on the cusp of the transition into the dry phase, which should load the dice for more likely dry years over the next five to seven years.”

The USU professor said the current La Nina, sometimes referred to as the cold phase, is shaping the expectation that the southwest states will be warm and dry. Such a phase would affect far southern Utah, but La Nina conditions mean very little statistically when it comes to northern Utah’s weather.

He said predicting Utah weather using precipitation cycles like El Nino/La Nina (ENSO), which monitors Pacific Ocean temperatures to know what side of the cycle Utah is experiencing, isn’t an easy task.

Given the recent historic drought years, it seems like we very well could be in the dry phase,” he said.  “However, it should be pointed out that the phase doesn’t mean every single year inside of that five to seven-year window is going to reflect the phase’s expected departure from average.”

Dry farms on the west side of the Valley are experiencing some tough times because there is no moisture to germinate their planted seeds.

Even with all the scientific data, predictions and analyses, Meyer said we could very well experience a banner snowpack season this season.

“Last winter started our great, with 175% snowpack observed across the state as we celebrated the new year,” he said. “Four months later, the season was considered a failure with significant drought concerns heading into the spring and summer months.”

Utah soil moisture is at such a deficit after the last 10 months of historic drought, that it will take more than a few storms, and more than a few months of good precipitation, to get back to normal. Should we have another limited snowpack by next April, the state’s summertime water outlook is going to be bleak.

Meyer’s prediction is based on historical data because there is no variable to track or magic index that can calculate the measure of seasonal precipitation, like ENSO provides many other western U.S. states.

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