Monday, December 30, 2019

Major Storylines of the 2010s and 2020s

With the 2010s coming to a close, it's time to look back at the last 10 years and highlight some of the major storylines covered by the Wasatch Weather Weenies.  We first started posting in Fall 2010, so the 2010s were our true youth.  Be warned that the 2020s will be our adolescence.

The 2010/11 Ski Season

Let's start on a positive note with the 2010/11 ski season which I suspect we can all agree was the best in the last 10 years in Utah.  The photo below was taken in the Avenues foothills on November 29.

Things just got better from there.  It was full on by mid December as Alta reached a 100" deep snowpack on December 20th.   How's this for coverage in upper White Pine on December 24th.

And Mother Nature just kept bringing the Goldilocks storms all winter long, right up through Memorial Day weekend when we were still skiing powder.

While the powder was gone, Snowbird was for the 4th of July when my son and I were skiing on Mt. Rainier.

One for the ages for sure.  My best estimate as they don't record snowfall after closing was that Alta received 800 inches of snow for the season (see Alta 800!).

Low Snow Years

The 2010/11 season was outstanding, but overall the 2010s also featured poor snow years and in general snowfall was a bit substandard.  Data fro Alta Guard shows that the lowest November-March snowfall occurred in 2014/15 and 2017/18 (sorry about not updating this with last years totals, but you get what you pay for).

As I concluded in a deep dive post examining the spate of poor snow in recent years, sorry kiddies, but your parents had more powder than you (see Your Parents Had More Powder Than You).  As I mentioned in that post, I'm not inclined to blame all that decline on global warming (more on this in a minute), but suspect that slow variations in storm-track are also an important contributor.

Global Warming

Unless you live in a cave or are the President of the United States, you likely recognize that the planet is warming and that this warming is caused primarily by human activity (especially greenhouse gas emissions).

Once fully in the can, the 2010s will be the warmest decade in the instrumented record and there is growing consensus that we are in the warmest period since at least the Holocene about 7,000 years ago and and possibly much farther back than that.

Temperature is important, but as I often say, it water is the agent that delivers weather and climate impacts through sea-level rise, heavy precipitation, drought, etc.  We are now seeing and measuring changes in the cryosphere (e.g., glaciers, ice caps, etc.)  that have long been predicted and that portend a world that could be dramatically different from the one we have built our civilization around.

I could discuss the mass balance of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, which are the big concerns for future sea level rise, but I'll instead focus on the European Alps due to my recent time spent in the Department of Atmospheric and Cyrospheric Sciences at the University of Innsbruck.  As discussed in our post The Disappearing Glaciers of the European Alps long-term losses in glacier mass are evident in across the Alps, with total loss of some minor glaciers and extensive retreat of major glaciers like the Hintereisferner in the Ă–tatal Alps of Austria.

Source: Kuhn and Lambrecht (2007)
This is not simply a response to the end of the "Little Ice Age."  Mass loss has accelerated in recent years and, in the case of the Hintereisferner, there has not been a net gain in glacier mass in any year since 1983, and that year was only weakly positive.

Recent studies indicate that if we keep total global warming to 2˚C over pre-industrial levels, the Alps would lose 50% of their remaining glacial ice.  A high emissions scenarios results in a total loss of all glacier ice by the end of the century except in high altitude regions of France and Switzerland.  

Global Warming and Utah

In 2007, I led a team of scientists that prepared a report on climate change for then Governor Jon Huntsman Jr.'s Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change (report available here).   In that report, we document changes to the climate of the Earth, western U.S. and Utah and, for the state of Utah, projected that Utah would see fewer frost days, longer growing seasons, and more heatwaves.  We also said that ongoing greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a decline in Utah's snowpack.

Detection of the fingerprints of global warming on Utah climate has been a common theme of this blog.  Often, I emphasize that the ability to detect of climate change trends depends on the variable.  As discussed in Western Snow Trends and Global Warming: Part I, trends in temperature and the fraction of cool-season precipitation falling as snow are the first to exhibit trends large enough to discern from the year-to-year variations.  Trends in peak of April 1st snowpack take longer to emerge, followed last by snowfall.  

As things stand now, it is very clear that warming is happening in Utah, and that we are seeing decreases in frost days, longer growing seasons, and more frequent and intense heat waves.

Large year-to-year variations make snowfall and snowpack trends more difficult to detect and generalize, but the bulk of the evidence indicates that there has been a decrease in the fraction of cool-season precipitation that falls as snow, more frequent mid-season snow-loss events (due to melting or sublimation), and a decrease in the amount of wintertime precipitation retained in the snowpack at the end of the snow accumulation season.  These trends are elevation dependent and largest below 6500 feet and small or non-detectable above 9000 feet.

That's what's been observed to date.  Although we will continue to see large year-to-year variations in cool-season weather over Utah in the coming decades, we will see a shift to warmer winters with commensurate changes in snowpack and snowfall.  For more on what might happen see Western Snow Trends and Global Warming, Part II or the last chapter of my book Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth.

The Late October 2019 Cold Wave

While there are many contenders, a strong argument could be made that the late October 2019 cold wave was the most unlikely "black swan" weather event of the last decade.  If you wish to reminisce, see How Hell Freezes Over, Rapid Fire Views on the Octobruary Cold Surge, and Hell Has Frozen Over

Why is it such a black swan?  Well, at least two things happened in Salt Lake that had never happened before in October.  First, upper-air soundings recorded a 700-mb (10,000 ft) temperature of -18.5˚C, more than 3˚C lower than the previous record.  Second, the Salt Lake City airport recorded a minimum temperature of 14˚F on October 30, the lowest recorded in the month of October with records going back to 1874 (if you include observations from downtown Salt Lake City in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

In fact, it's now late December and we still haven't observed a temperature anywhere near that low so far this winter.  The lowest since October 30 is 20˚F, recorded on several days. 

To set a record like that in a warming climate with a much larger urban area and associated heat island is quite remarkable.  The odds were long, but, as discussed in the posts above, extreme cold in our part of the world requires a series of large-scale circulation changes that allows extreme cold to push into the Intermountain West and Mother Nature can still bring it when the circumstances are right. 

And, to further highlight the regional nature of the cold wave, below are surface temperature anomalies on October 30th relative to the 1979-2000 average.  Globally, we were 0.7˚C above that 1979-2000 average, with the interior western U.S. an extreme cold outlier. 


Air Pollution and Inversions

This has been a frequent topic of our posts but one that I would prefer to forget.  What can I say?  We have met the enemy and it is us.  'Nuff said.

Blown Forecasts

And bad mistakes
I've made a few
I've had my share of sand kicked in my face
But I've come through
- Queen (from We Are the Champions)

I tell people that this is a blog and not a forecast service.  The reason for this is that I often talk more about the forecast process and I don't consider what I do to be a true forecast such as what is issued by the National Weather Service.  

Nevertheless, I do talk about the forecast process, the science behind it, and what I think will happen.  Meteorology is advancing rapidly, but it is still an inexact science, so blown forecasts are inevitable and I've had my share.  

One need only look at the post from a couple of days ago entitled, No Major Storms in Northern Utah for the Rest of the Year... God, what a disaster.  In writing it, my thinking was that there were no major dumps forecast and by major, I meant with a substantial accumulation of snow.  Subsequently, while snowfall has been light in depth and water equivalent, it has been frequent and high impact due in part to the low temperatures and cold road surfaces.  Like a good quarterback forgets bad passes, it is important for a meteorologist to quickly forget (but learn from) such blown forecasts, but the pain of this one will linger for a while, or at least until the next major storm, which looks to be New Years Day (if you still want to buy what I'm selling).   

Personal Professional Highlights

A colleague once told me that graduate students can take you to places you can't go by yourself and over the last decade (not to mention my 24-year career at the University of Utah), I've been blessed to work with may talented students who continue to do things that I couldn't do by myself.  They enabled the successful execution of three field programs: the Storm Chasing Utah Style Study (SCHUSS), Outreach and Radar Education in Orography (OREO), and Ontario Winter Lake-effect Systems (OWLeS).
At Pulaski High School with the Center for Severe Weather Research Doppler on Wheels radar
Maybe you caught us during one of our outreach efforts.  Hopefully we inspired a few youngsters to pursue science as a career.  We certainly enjoyed the storm chasing, being in the snow, and the subsequent research.  I thank the National Science Foundation for their support of our efforts, which, now involves significant collaborations with scientists at the Snow and Ice Research Center in Nagaoka, Japan, as it became apparent to us that such a collaboration would accelerate our understanding of how terrain impacts lake- and sea-effect storms. 

An X-band scanning radar at the Nagaoka Snow and Ice Research Center
If you want to learn more about what happens in Japan, see our forthcoming article for the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (currently available in unformatted form, but hopefully formally released soon). 

Other highlights include the release of my book Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, serving as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Innsbruck, and being elected as a Councilor for the American Meteorological Society. 

None of these things were a glint in my eye when the decade started and give me optimism that good things are coming in the 2020s.

The 2020s

So, here are a few predictions for the next decade:

  • While there will still be ups-and-downs in the weather from day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year, there will be no return to the climate of the 20th century.  Baring a major volcanic eruption, nuclear war, or a major reduction in solar output, the 2020s will be as warm or warmer than the 2010s and we will see changes in the cryosphere, oceans and other aspects of the Earth system consistent with that warming.  
  • More energy will come from "clean" energy sources, but these will largely fill the growth in total energy consumption and global carbon emissions will remain steady or decrease little despite some countries and states (e.g., California) shifting dramatically away from fossil fuels and greatly decreasing carbon emissions.  Sorry to be a pessimist, but this is a wicked problem. 
  • Nevertheless, the end of the world does not come.  Skiing continues in the Wasatch, although the caustic influence of global warming becomes more apparent.  
  • Tolls and highway improvements come to the Cottonwoods, but gridlock continues.  
  • The price of a day pass at Deer Valley during the Christmas week increases $209 in 2019 to $509 in 2029.  That sounds crazy, but did you ever imagine a $209 lift ticket?  
  • Advances in computer infrastructure and machine learning, combined with the rise and demands of weather-sensitive (and weather-observing) autonomous vehicles including drones for transportation and commerce, completely revolutionize meteorology.  The market for automated forecast systems grows dramatically and a private company develops the world's best global, regional, and local forecast system, topping even ECMWF.  
Happy New Year and best wishes for the 2020s,



  1. Nice review of the decade, the 2010/2011 season is one I will never forget for not only snow skiing but water skiing on Utah Lake. No doubt there has been global warming and humans are to blame (things like deforestation & urbanization) for a part of it. I will bet you the cost of a Alta ski pass in 2030 that globally the 2020's will be cooler than the 2010's.

    1. 10 years ago I would have bet that the 2010's would be no warmer than the 2000's. The 2000's were flat despite climate models saying otherwise and nearing the point where actual temperatures would fall below the 95% confidence intervals of the models.

      The sunspot cycle showed a likely rerun of the Dalton minimum, providing a plausible explanation of the above combined with the speculative positive feedback assumption of the climate models.

      We got closer to the point of invalidating the models by 2013 but the next 3 years saw a sharp increase in temperatures despite the ongoing quiet sunspot cycle.

      While I still believe that the models are on the aggressive side for temperature forecasts, they don';t look nearly as far off as they did a decade ago. We will see temperature variability and flat periods, but the evidence are quite strong that the overall trend is up. Thus betting against that trend for a full decade is likely a losing proposition.

      I still contend that the crown jewels of skiing, Utah's Cottonwood Canyons at altitudes mostly over 9,000 feet, are a long way off from negative impacts of climate change.

    2. As a followup to the last point, at AltaGuard the 1953-1963 drought was longer though slightly less acute than the recent one. If you looked at the AltaGuard data in 2011, you might have though Alta snowfall was trending up slightly. The highest decade for snowfall was 1989-1998. I think the evidence is very strong that 2012-2018 was a statistical aberration.

    3. Tony gives sage advice here. The increase in global surface air temperatures isn't steady from year to year due to internal variability and other factors, but we have reached a point where, barring something very dramatic to alter the planet's energy balance, it's pretty unlikely that we're not going to see net warming over the next ten years.


  2. I wouldn't do that if I were you... I wouldn't want to double my student debt

    1. If a Deer Valley Pass is projected to be $509 in 2030 a Alta pass should not be any more...I can afford a friendly $500 bet.

  3. I was just introduced to your blog through a Snowbird guide, with whom I was discussing historical snowfall data. In looking at the first full decade of the Alta Guard data following WWII, and comparing to the most recent decade of snowfall data on the new Alta website (using 500" as a conservative estimate for this season, extrapolating from the 329" through 01/25/20), the average seasonal snowfall for the most recent decade is slightly greater than the first decade, 487" vs. 463", but with greater variability, as indicated by a higher standard deviation, 118" vs. 86". This comparison is in tension with your post, "Your Parents Had More Powder Than You," although it may be fair to say the parents enjoyed it more, regardless of who had more powder! I think it is difficult to state with any degree of statistical confidence that aggregate average seasonal snowfalls are lower now than in the first decade of the recorded Alta Guard data, unless there are data integrity issues in comparing the old Alta Guard data to the Alta website data. Variability may have increased, and the moisture content of the snow may also have increased (although I do not know how to find moisture content information for that first post-war decade; the Alta website does of course have it for recent years). I would tend to agree with Tony that LCC will still be skiing nicely in 2030, but as a Snowbasin skier, with the base elevation at 6,500', I am at least a little bit concerned. My basic layman's speculation is that within a bandwidth of temperatures, there is no major effect on average seasonal snowfall in Utah, but once we get outside that bandwidth, it will fall off a cliff. Great blog, keep up the good work!

    1. I perhaps didn't make this clear in that post, but I was thinking of college-age students when I wrote that article, whose parents would have been skiing in the 80s and 90s as most college students today were born from 1995-2001 or so. This is a statement of decadal-scale variability and the phat nature of the 80s/90s compared to the 2010s. I wasn't referring to a long-term snowfall decline.

      That being said, with regards to global warming, it is something that I've covered in my book and in many many posts. Snowfall is one of the last snow "measures" to exhibit a clear long-term trend due to the large variability. See:


      In my view, there is no discernible long-term trend in snowfall at upper-elevations in the Wasatch (at least not yet) that can be attributed to global warming. However, there is clear evidence that a greater fraction of cool-season precipitation is falling as rain at lower elevations (near or below 7000 feet). That will eventually happen at upper elevations as well.

      Welcome to the blog.