SALT LAKE CITY — A new analysis of weather events shows that more than 3,500 monthly records for heat, rain and snow were broken across the country during 2012 — and Utah was not immune from the extreme fluctuations.
The Beehive State is dealing with subzero temperatures this month as extreme cold grips the state. But in 2012, Utah sweltered under record-breaking heat in 20 counties, and a total of 40 high-temperature records were broken.
The unrelenting heat helped set up the country's worst drought in more than 50 years, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture declaring just last week that 597 counties in 14 states are primary natural disaster areas. The designation, which includes 17 counties in Utah, means farmers are eligible to apply for low-interest emergency loans to help lift them from calamity.
Released Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the extreme weather analysis for 2012 is a year-end look at weather in all 50 states and how the cost of extremes is being felt in multiple regions. Among those hardest hit last year were the upper Midwest, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West.
The analysis points out that heat and drought combined to fuel an incredibly active wildfire season in 2012, with more than 9.2 million acres burned in the United States and hundreds of homes destroyed. In Utah, firefighters battled more than 1,000 wildfires that burned through 422,000 acres, with 74 of those fires deemed as "large" by the environmental organization.
State leaders in charge of Utah's wildfire budgets have already warned Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah lawmakers that the efforts directed at quashing the fires will require millions of extra dollars — the largest ever supplemental appropriation in that arena — and still more to reseed scarred rangeland and wildlife habitat.
"2012's unparalleled record-setting heat demonstrates what climate change looks like," said Kim Knowlton, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This extreme weather has awoken communities across the country to the need for preparedness and protection. We know how to reduce local risks, improve our lives and create more resilient communities. Now our leaders must act."
In Utah, as elsewhere, it wasn't just heat that broke records. Nine weather stations throughout the state — from Washington County in the south to Rich County at the northern end — had sudden downpours of rainfall that broke records.
Washington County received 2.13 inches of rain in September, washing out a retention dam and damaging sidewalks, homes and streets. The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved more than $1 million in assistance in December and expects that at least that much will be necessary to help the community offset the costs of repairing the dam.
Snowfall, too, set records in Utah, with Hovenweep National Monument in San Juan County receiving 9 inches of snow on Dec. 16, breaking a record set two years earlier of 6.7 inches of snow. Milford in Beaver County received 12 inches of new snow on March 7 last year, breaking a record that stood for 27 years.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said there are proactive steps policymakers can take to help decrease the risks to communities due to climate change. Among them:
• Enact plans to limit carbon emissions from power plants, vehicles and other major sources of heat-trapping pollution; coupled with increased investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
• Emergency planning must incorporate risks from climate change. States and local governments should develop, prioritize, support and implement comprehensive climate change mitigation plans to address climate risks.
• The Federal Emergency Management Agency must also prioritize addressing and preparing for climate change by providing guidance and resources to state and local governments.