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Could Utah's highly variable climate impact winter sports?

Published: Friday, Aug. 10 2012 6:25 p.m. MDT

Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The 2002 Winter Games showed off Utah's beautiful mountains and the greatest snow on earth.

There is talk of Utah one day bidding for another Olympics. But will global warming allow enough of the greatest snow on Earth to fall in Utah?

The questions come on the heels of a wild 2012 with savage storms, raging wildfires, blistering heat waves and unrelenting drought. July was the hottest month on record for the continental U.S. since record keeping began, the 329th consecutive month in which the temperature of the whole globe topped the 20th-century average.

"The atmosphere is warming, we're getting an earlier snowmelt in the season and a faster snowmelt," said Robert Gillies, Utah State climatologist.

Gillies published a study finding Utah is clearly getting hotter. “The real thing that is changing is the temperature trend in the last 50 years of the atmosphere here in Utah,” Gilles said. "That’s significant because that’s shifting the whole precipitation regime from this predominantly snow to one that is predominantly rainfall.”

Another study found Utah temperatures are up on average more than 2 degrees over the last century. Overall, precipitation is up 9 percent as well, Gilles said.

He added that people are probably perceiving a decline in snowfall, but that’s not the case. “The snowfall is declining, but it’s not statistically significant,” he said.

Our climate is highly variable and this is what can really confuse people sometimes, he said.

No one weather event, whether it's a drought, flood, tornado, hurricane, cold spell or heat wave, can be specifically attributed to the warming climate. Climate scientists say long-range trends are key and that as the atmosphere warms the weather dice get loaded, making extreme events more likely.

Research links rising temperatures to beetle-kill forests and shrinking snowpacks.

Retired USU professor Fred Wagner edited a book on the warming West. "The precip each year in the winter is more and more rainfall and less and less snow," he said.

He said regions all over the globe are seeing receding snow and ice, and milder, shorter winters, which is causing deep concern on a variety of fronts, from water supply to cold-weather sports.

"The ski areas are going to be in jeopardy, some of them, particularly the low elevation ones," Wagner said.

In 2010, the Olympics Games in Vancouver were hit by unseasonably warm weather and a drastic lack of snow. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge called global warming "a worry" for the world that might affect "long-term staging" of Winter Games.

Alexis Kelner hikes and skis Utah's mountains and has for decades. He's seen the changes in the snow. "I would say they're quite dramatic if you looked at it over a 50-year period," Kelner said.

Author of "Skiing in Utah, A History,” Kelner said for years people hiked, then skied, the glacial snowfield at the summit of Mt. Timpanogos in mid-summer.

"The snowfield at that time was much bigger, and as I looked at photographs of the ski races the snow was like spring snow in Alta in April," Kelner said. Lately, by August the snow is mostly gone.

Utah business leaders say they follow the climate studies, but are confident in skiing's future.

"I just can't even quote all of the studies that are on both sides," said Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. "Is it a concern? Is water a concern? I have grandchildren. It's a huge concern."

"We believe we'll still have enough snow to maintain our ski and snowboard operations," said Mike Goar, managing director of The Canyons Resort.

So when it comes to the "Greatest Snow on Earth,"  Wagner said with a smile, "Enjoy it while you can."

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc

E-mail: jdaley@ksl.com

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