Story and photos by HOUSTON FULLER
For Evan Robison, the air quality index wasn’t always something he thought about when he wanted to step outside to water his plants. With summer inversions getting worse every year, Robison’s doctors now suggest staying inside if possible. For many older adults living in Utah, this may seem all too familiar a struggle.
“I think it’s gotten worse because it’s causing health problems for elderly people. When I was first living up here there were no problems, but it’s gotten worse,” Robison says when comparing the air quality in the Salt Lake Valley to what it once was. Born in 1942, he has had a firsthand experience of these changes taking place right in front of his eyes.
Utah is placed in a geographical location that exacerbates typical climate issues that other states in the U.S. might be able to handle easier.
Logan Klingler is a resident of California who moved to Utah to attend college. Living in California gave he a different understanding of how climate change affects our daily lives. “I’ve visited and driven through the valley here many summers when I was younger, and I always remember stepping out of the car to stretch my legs and the wind itself being hot — that was a new experience for me, coming from the coast,” Klingler says in a Zoom interview.
Even with a limited knowledge of the climate in Utah, certain events in Utah made headlines across the nation, putting Utah’s climate issues in the spotlight. Klingler recalls a particular inversion from 2019 where “a giant smog cloud” was looming over the Salt Lake Valley. He was largely unaware of some of the issues Utah’s climate faces, however. “I didn’t think it was worse than it should be,” he said. “Anywhere in a valley with no coast or something to let the smog escape is going to have air quality problems.”
One of the most pressing issues Utah’s climate faces is accelerated warming caused by a higher altitude, drier weather, and most importantly, high emissions.
Emissions are temporarily trapped by surrounding mountains in northern Utah. Storms typically carry out the bad air and smog, but these emissions are still warming Utah’s climate. According to the Utah Climate Action Network, Utah is actually warming at twice the global rate, which could have devastating impacts on not only our environment, but also our economy.
Logan Mitchell, a University of Utah research assistant professor with a doctorate in atmospheric sciences, says, “We would have really devastating heatwaves in the summertime. There is a model of springtime snowpack under a high emissions scenario, and the springtime snowpack disappears in 50 years from now.”
In a Zoom interview, Mitchell says he attended a panel discussion a few years ago where one of the panelists was a sustainability manager for Alta, a world-class ski resort located in Utah. “Another [presenter] showed … in 70 or 80 years the springtime snowpack is going to be gone.” The panelist said that in another 80 years — the same amount of time Alta had been in business — “Utah could have no springtime snowpack if we were in a high emissions scenario, and the ski area would then cease to exist.”
Mitchell adds, “We wouldn’t have the greatest snow on Earth.”
The accelerating warming would melt springtime snowpack and make summers even hotter. This warming could cause droughts that last decades. “As climate change continues to unfold, drought conditions in the Southwest will get worse,” Mitchell says. “There is a very high risk of a severe drought extending over not just years, but potentially decades. A decade-long severe drought would absolutely cripple Utah’s economy and our ability to live because we need water.”
These issues present very real threats for Utahns and the Southwest as a whole, but Mitchell suggests that the future might not be as bleak as these projections make it out to be. Many of the models and scenarios he presents are under the assumption that we do nothing to combat this climate crisis. Yes, climate change will bring about catastrophic and devastating effects, but Mitchell doesn’t want to downplay all of the strides we are taking toward a cleaner and cooler climate.
“But, I don’t think any of that’s going to happen,” Mitchell optimistically states regarding the devastating effects of climate change, “and the reason why is because there have been huge advances in research and development, and deployment of new technologies that are zero emission technologies to the point where they are cost competitive with fossil fuel energy. … Today, producing energy from solar is cheaper than coal.”
Mitchell points out that many Utah politicians are working together to find bipartisan solutions to the climate issues that are unique to Utah. He believes that the existing climate issues Utahns face provide a unique advantage for promoting systemic change at a political level. These issues pose real health risks to many Utahns, making it hard to deny that the climate is changing drastically. Despite that, Mitchell says he believes that “Utah is going to change the national conversation on addressing environmental challenges and being good stewards of the environment.”