UTAH DROUGHT 2021

Numbers Explain How And Why American West Bakes, Burns, Dries Out

Jul 14, 2021, 3:54 PM | Updated: Jul 15, 2021, 5:50 am
FILE: The receding waters of The Great Salt Lake are easy to see from Chopper 5. (KSL TV)...
FILE: The receding waters of The Great Salt Lake are easy to see from Chopper 5. (KSL TV)
(KSL TV)

(AP) — The American West is baking, burning, and drying in intertwined extreme weather. Four sets of numbers explain how bad it is now, while several others explain why it got this bad.

The West is going through “the trifecta of an epically dry year followed by incredible heat the last two months and now we have fires,” said University of California Merced climate and fire scientist John Abatzoglou. “It is a story of cascading impacts.”

And one of climate change, the data shows.

RECORD HEAT

In the past 30 days, the country has set 585 all-time heat records, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Of those, 349 are for daily high temperatures and 236 are the warmest overnight low temperatures, which are vital for people to recover from deadly heat waves.

And this doesn’t include Death Valley hitting 130 degrees (54 degrees Celsius) preliminarily. If this is confirmed, it would be the hottest temperature on Earth in decades — and several meteorologists say it would be the hottest reliable temperature recorded because many don’t trust the accuracy of two hotter records.

A different part of Death Valley likely set the world record on July 11 for hottest 24-hour period by averaging the daily high and overnight low to come up with 118.1 (47.9 degrees Celsius), according to meteorologist Maximiliano Herrera, who tracks weather extremes.

The average daily high temperature for the entire area from the Rockies and westward in June was 85.7 degrees (29.8 Celsius), which beat the old record by 1.3 degrees (0.7 Celsius), according to NOAA.

SEVERE DROUGHT

Nearly 60% of the U.S. West is considered in exceptional or extreme drought, the two highest categories, according to the University of Nebraska’s Drought Monitor. That’s the highest percentage in the 20 years the drought monitor has been keeping track. Less than 1% of the West is not in drought or considered abnormally dry, also a record.

LOW SOIL MOISTURE

How much moisture in the soil is key because normally part of the sun’s energy is used to evaporate moisture in the soil and plants. Also, when the soil and plants are dry, areas burn much more often and hotter in wildfires and the available water supply shrinks for places like California, a “true indicator of just how parched things are,” Abatzoglou said.

Both NOAA and NASA show soil moisture levels down to some of the lowest recorded levels for much of the West. Most of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Idaho are drier than in 99% of other years.

WILDFIRES BURNING

There are 68 active large fires burning, consuming 1,038,003 acres (420,000 hectares) of land, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. With those fires and ones in Canada, there is “one large area of smoke over much of the U.S. and Canada,” NOAA said Tuesday.

So far this year, wildfires have burned 2.2 million acres (899,000 hectares), which is less than the 10-year average for this time of year. But that may change because dry plants are at extra high risk of burning in much of the West as shown in what experts call fire’s energy release component.

HOW WE GOT HERE

“The heatwave story cannot be viewed as an isolated extreme event, but rather part of a longer story of climate change with more related, widespread, and varying impacts,” said climate scientist Jennifer Francis of the Woodwell Climate Research Center on Cape Cod.

SUMMERS GETTING HOTTER

From 1991 to 2020, summers in the Rockies and westward have on average become 2.7 degrees (1.5 Celsius) warmer. The West is warming faster than the rest of the United States and the globe.

MORE HEAT DOMES FROM WEAKER JET STREAM

The weather phenomenon that is roasting the West now and that brought 116-degree (46.7 Celsius) temperatures to Portland, Oregon, at the end of June is often called a heat dome — where high-pressure parks over an area and warm air sinks. This usually happens when the jet stream — the river of air that brings weather to places — gets stuck and doesn’t move storms along.

Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann found the number of times the jet stream stalls in the Northern Hemisphere is increasing from about six times a summer in the early 1980s to about eight times a summer now.

“We’ve shown climate change is making these stuck summer jet stream patterns more common,” Mann said.

LESS RAIN

The West on average received 13.6 inches (34.5 centimeters) of snow and rain from July 2020 to June 2021. Over the last 10 years, the region has averaged a bit more than 19 inches (48 centimeters) of precipitation a year in the middle of what scientists call a megadrought. In the 1980s and 1990s, before the megadrought started, the West averaged nearly 22 inches (56 centimeters) of rain.

2020 study said, “global warming has pushed what would have been a moderate drought in southwestern North America into megadrought territory.”

MORE WILDFIRES

From 2011 to 2020, on average 7.5 million acres (3 million hectares) burned in wildfires each year. That’s more than double the average of 3.6 million acres (1.4 million hectares) a year from 1991 to 2000, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.

It’s not just more acres burned, but more “very very large fires,” said UC Merced’s Abatzoglou, noting that the combination of drought and heat means plants are more likely to burn and fires to get bigger.

“The drought we’ve had this year and the warm temperatures has allowed the fire season to come on hard and really, really early,” he said.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Utah Drought 2021

...
Leia Larsen, The Salt Lake Tribune

Lawn gone: ‘Localscaping’ may save water, but can it rescue the Great Salt Lake?

The idea is catching on in cities as Utahns shift their thinking about landscaping. The trick is ensuring enough water trickles downstream.
14 days ago
Follow @https://twitter.com/jellis9...
Josh Ellis

Church to reduce watering at temples, meetinghouses across West

Lawns and landscapes at some temples and meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be allowed to brown and become dormant as the Church reduces watering across the American West.
2 months ago
FILE: (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)...
Madison Swenson, KSL TV

Eagle Mountain residents encouraged to water twice a week

Residents in Eagle Mountain have been encouraged by city officials to water their lawns twice per week due to rising temperatures.
2 months ago
(Mike Anderson/KSL TV)...
Mike Anderson

Utah firefighters train and prepare for hot, dry summer

There's a high potential for several wildfires as drought conditions continue to plague Utah, and firefighters from eight different counties are working together to prepare for the upcoming fire season.
2 months ago
...
Matt Gephardt & Cindy St. Clair, KSL TV

Thousands complain of water waste – but how is it enforced?

Lots of people are not afraid to call out water wasters. But are those complaints to water officials investigated? And does anything happen to stop the waste? KSL Investigator Matt Gephardt went fishing for answers.
3 months ago
The East Bench of Salt Lake City receives a dusting of snow the morning of May 9, 2022. (Jed Boal/K...
Jed Boal, KSL TV

Drought coordinator: Hold off on watering; consult the weekly lawn watering guide

The cool, wet spring Utah is having is exactly what the state needs in the midst of this historic drought. The wet weather won’t really make a dent in the drought, but it can help everyone save water, if we take advantage of it.
3 months ago

Sponsored Articles

tips how to quit smoking...

7 Tips How to Quit Smoking | Quitting Smoking Might be One of the Hardest Things You Ever Do but Here’s Where You Can Start

Quitting smoking cigarettes can be incredibly difficult. Here are 7 tips how to quit smoking to help you on your quitting journey.
Photo: Storyblocks...
Blue Stakes of Utah 811

Blue Stakes of Utah 811: 5 Reasons To Call 811 Before You Dig When Working in Your Yard

Call before you dig. Even at home, you could end up with serious injuries or broken utilities just because you didn't call Blue Stakes of Utah 811.
Days of...
Days of '47 Rodeo

TRIVIA: How well do you know your rodeo? Take this quiz before you go to the Days of ’47!

The Utah Days of ’47 Rodeo presented by Zions Bank is a one-of-a-kind Gold Medal Rodeo being held July 20-23, 25 at 7:30 PM. The Days of ’47 Rodeo How well do you know your rodeo trivia? Take the quiz to test your know-all before heading out to the Days of ’47 Rodeo at the […]
cyber security through multi factor authentication setup...
Les Olson IT

How multi factor authentication setup helps companies stay safe

Multi factor authentication (MFA) setup is an important security measure that every company should implement for their workers. It’s also wise to install it for your personal and home accounts.
...
Lighting Design

Check out these stunning lamps with stained glass shades

Lamps with stained glass shades are statement pieces that are more than simply aesthetic. They also meet a functional requirement: to light up a room.
Address Bar of internet browser shows internet access...
AARP Utah

Utah voters 50+ support increased access to Internet

The AARP surveyed Utah voters aged 50 plus about internet access and if they support the expansion of broadband, especially in rural areas currently lacking it.
Numbers Explain How And Why American West Bakes, Burns, Dries Out