A handful of late-season storms in Utah have kept this winter from going down in history as the state’s driest ever — but the most recent snowfall hasn’t been enough to stave off drought conditions.
Nearly the entire state — 94 percent by acreage — has officially slipped back into Utah’s semi-perpetual drought status, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Drought conditions in the southeast corner and south-central Utah are already considered “extreme” by the monitor.
Utah as a whole has received just 58 percent — a little over half — as much snow as it should have over the past winter. Snow is so sparse in some corners of the state that earlier this month, Gov. Gary Herbert asked Utahns of all faiths to pray for the weather to change.
But those dry conditions still prevail, despite the fact that storms in late February and early March caused snowpack to grow by as much as 20 percent in some locales.
Before that windfall of precipitation, Utah had been on track to mark its driest winter in recorded history.
Most regions of the state are still on target to have what will be among their top five driest years on record, said Troy Brosten, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Salt Lake Valley is currently experiencing its 12th driest winter in history, according to Jon Meyer, a a climatologist at Utah State University’s Utah Climate Center. And before the first of this latest series of snowstorms hit on Feb. 17, Meyer said, 2017-18 was headed for fourth place in the weather record books, which date back to 1874.
Snow shortage triggers statewide drought
The U.S. Drought Monitor has declared a state-wide drought, with "extreme" drought conditions in some parts of the state due to the absence of snow.
Source: U.S. Drought Monitor
December-February has also marked the fifth-warmest winter in Salt Lake City history, Meyer said.
But across the state, local conditions vary, said Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah. Valleys and lower-elevation areas are already all but devoid of snow, he said.
In terms of how much snow actually fell, Steenburgh said, lower elevations weren’t too far off their average levels, but record-breaking heat has already melted away most of those snowy reserves.
Utah’s mountainous areas, on the other hand, still have snow on the ground. But those higher elevations have accumulated far less snow than normal due to the dry weather, Steenburgh said.
“To say it’s been a pretty poor snow year is a pretty accurate assessment,” he said.
But this being Utah — known for its quickly changing weather conditions — Steenburgh said April still could bring considerable snowfall to the mountains.
Brosten is less optimistic about a springtime recovery in Utah’s snowpack. This week’s forecast calls for a storm, but after that, the National Weather Service is predicting a dry heatwave that could last through May across much of the state.
With snowpack already thin, Brosten said, a warm spell could cause remaining snow in Utah’s mountains to melt 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule.
“We really don’t know how it’s going to shape out between now and the middle to end of April,” Steenburgh agreed, “except to say that the odds we have a miracle are pretty low.”