Utah Climate Center

By Carma Wadley, Deseret News senior writer
Copyright 1998 Deseret News
September 16, 1998

Weather happens outside your window, day-to-day stuff you pay attention to. Rain, snow, wind, sunshine. Bring an umbrella, dress warmly, savor the sun.

Climate, on the other hand, is what happens when you're not looking -- the accumulation of all those days of weather, month by month, year by year, decade by decade. You notice the weather, but it is climate that dictates how you live: the kind of house you build, when you plant your crops, the kind of flowers you grow, the recreation opportunities you might enjoy.

A lot of variables can determine climate: latitude, terrain, elevation, vegetation, prevailing weather conditions. And, while climate is different for various parts of the planet, those places have climatic connections and relationships we are still coming to understand.

Utah basically has a desert climate, says Donald T. Jensen, state climatologist and director of the Utah Climate Center, which is based at Utah State University.

"We're hot in the summer and cold in the winter. We're usually very dry in the summer." But, he says, we've learned to adapt and live in comfort in what is really a pretty harsh climate. For one thing, he says, "our ancestors had to learn how to manage water. The system of irrigation they developed enables us to keep our lawns green. And lawns and trees can reduce temperatures inside our homes by 10 to 15 degrees -- even without air conditioning."

But, he notes, Utah has a lot of climatic variety. It can be dry in one place and wet in another. This year, for example, it has been cooler, with above normal precipitation in northern Utah, but the southeastern part of the state has been suffering from drought.

The Climate Center collects the data that ties it all together. "We don't make predictions," says Jensen. "But our motto is 'linking today with yesterday and tomorrow.' " To know where we are, we have to know where we've been, he says.

Meteorologists talk about normals and averages, things they are able to determine from study of long-term patterns and developments. "But we seldom actually have an average year," says Jensen. And it's not all that often that we even hit "normal" right on the dot.

At the center, they gather and archive climatic data from 22 networks throughout the state. "The National Weather Service network is only one of them," he explains. They also monitor and compile information from networks used by the Forest Service, the University of Utah, the Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Land Management, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and others.

Data such as maximum and minimum temperature, precipitation, evaporation and evapotranspiration (a measure of water lost from the soil due to transfer to plants rather than straight evaporation) and solar radiation are collected from various sites. In fact, the center collects some 57,000 pieces of information from hundreds of locations each day.

This data reveal trends and are valuable for research, but they can also be compiled into tables and graphs with a variety of useful applications; education is another important part of the center's work.

There are tables, for example, that list climatic data for cities and areas throughout the state. Charts that list frost-free days are helpful for planting crops, and tables with the number of days over 40 or 50 degrees are helpful in knowing which kinds of crops to plant where. Colorful maps show average annual temperatures and annual rainfall. The average temperatures and record highs and lows you see nightly on local newscasts generally come from Climate Center data.

Many of the tables are published in a book called "Utah Climate" that Jensen is in the process of updating. The last edition was printed in 1992; a new version will be out early next year, updating information through 1998.

A lot of their material is also available on the Internet at the Climate Center's Web site http://climate.usu.edu/, along with daily updates of current conditions. Monthly reports are compiled and published in a "Utah Climate Update" newsletter. And the center produced a CD-ROM that went into every fourth-grade classroomacross the state, full of information and interactive climate-related activities.

The earliest records at the Climate Center go back to the 1870s and 1880s. Most of the stations around the state, however, were not put in place until the early 1900s.

And new collection points are still being added to the network. Jensen and his crew are working with the BLM, for example, to put some new weather stations in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. "Since it became a national monument, more people have been going there. And the more people that go there, the more chance that someone will get lost," says Jensen. "Being able to pinpoint current weather conditions will help with search and rescue, and if a disaster occurs -- like it did with the two hikers killed in a flash flood in Zion in July -- we will be able to reconstruct the weather circumstances that led up to the problem, maybe prevent future problems from happening."

At the weather stations, climatic information is now collected by cell phone rather than satellite. This gives them the advantage of two-way communication in remote locations. It used to be they just received what information came in, but now they can go in search of specific bits of information as needed.

A lot more research is being done on climate these days. At one time, it was considered a constant, an unchanging part of the planet. Then came evidence of the ice ages, and scientists realized that the history of the Earth has been one of dramatic climate changes.

The way climate impacts humans has long been a source of study, but in recent years attention has focused on the impact that humans may have on climate.

Studies have shown, for example, that levels of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased in the past 200 years or so. Is this a natural occurrence or a direct result of the industrialization of much of the planet?

Although there is no consensus concerning the increase in global temperatures, some studies have noted slight increases. What are the long-term implications of this global warming? Is this something that can be "fixed" by changing human activity?

Any signals of global warming in Utah "have been lost in the noise of other temperature fluctuations," says Jensen. "It's hard to find any real evidence here because temperatures here have always bounced up and down."

But still, these are important questions, he says. And the answers, which may come in part from the bits and pieces of climatic data gathered over the decades in places like Utah's Climate Center, may determine not only what we see out the window each day but how we live in the future.

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