The impacts of climate change are real and already upon us. Much of eastern Utah’s canyon country has already seen significant warming over the past decade, and that warming is predicted to continue. On the ground that will likely mean hotter temperatures coupled with less precipitation, violent dust storms, raging wildfires, extreme drought, and rapid expansion in the ranges of exotic species. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the American Southwest, including Utah, will be ground zero for some of climate change’s most significant impacts in North America.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acknowledges that a key step to responding to this rapidly changing and warming planet is prioritizing the protection of intact, undisturbed land from human activities. These activities include mineral development, off-road vehicle use, and grazing. These activities can disturb fragile soils, destroy vegetation, and change water flows.  Taken together over millions of acres, the results can have significant, even devastating effects.

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A hot, dry climate coupled with erosion from off-road vehicle use can lead to dust storms like this one in the San Rafael Swell. Photo copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA

SUWA has long championed protecting more than 9 million acres of outstanding BLM-managed public lands in Utah from fossil fuel leasing and development ranging from oil, gas and coal to oil shale and tar sand. SUWA has been working to “Keep It in the Ground” on Utah’s wild lands since its inception.

SUWA’s work to limit fossil fuel leasing and development as well as other surface-disturbing activities protects Utah’s wildest places for current and future generations. It has the added benefit of helping maintain the ecological and climate-buffering functions provided by wild public lands and keeping significant quantities of climate pollution in the ground.

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Oil and gas wells in the White River area of northeastern utah. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWa

The Obama administration took some important steps to start tackling climate change. The Department of Interior issued a moratorium on new coal leasing for BLM and Forest Service lands; it also released proposed regulations to reduce methane emissions from existing oil and gas wells. In the summer of 2016, the Council on Environmental Quality released guidance directing federal agencies to consider the effects of climate change when evaluating proposed Federal actions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is dismantling any climate progress made under the Obama administration.  On March 28, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13783 – a sweeping order rolling back virtually all of President Obama’s climate change policies.  The Executive Order lifted the coal moratorium, repealed the Council on Environmental Quality’s guidance for considering climate change in NEPA analysis, and rescinded the proposed regulations to reduce methane emission.

Compounding the problem, the Utah BLM continues to rely on a suite of Bush-era land use plans which barely mention climate change, as well as several plans that date from 1980s and 1990s which are similarly silent on this issue.  This land management regime prioritizes mineral development and motorized use way above protecting lands in their intact and undisturbed state.  The administration needs to act on science and data and make land management decisions that protect the Colorado Plateau.

Bottom line, it’s going to take an “all of the above” strategy to turn this ship around.  That’s why SUWA works on a variety of fronts to press the administration, and more specifically the BLM, to do better.  From legal challenges over damaging fossil fuel projects to grassroots advocacy for greener land use planning, we’re working at every turn to ensure that we leave our children with the same opportunities to enjoy and appreciate Utah’s redrock wilderness that we enjoy today.

Climate Spotlight: Dust on Snow

In a region only expected to get hotter and drier than it already is, the phenomenon known as “dust on snow” is a particular problem.  It likely both results from, and exacerbates the impacts of, climate change.  Science suggests that human activity on the Colorado Plateau destabilizes desert soils.  The destabilized soil facilitates large dust storms which coat high mountain snow fields.  That, in turn, produces early snowmelt, net water loss, and increased temperatures in the Colorado River Basin.

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Snow pit showing dust layers in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Photo courtesy of Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies

In spring, frequent monster dust storms blow in from the west.  These dust storms leave a clearly visible pink, brown, or red layer on mountain snow.  This leads to a significant rise in the amount of sun absorbed because of the decreased reflectivity of the snow (think of getting into a dark-colored car on a hot summer day).

In 2005 and 2006, disturbed desert dust melted snow cover 18-35 days earlier in the San Juan Mountains of Western Colorado.  In 2009 and 2010, disturbed dust melted snow cover 48 days and 40 days, respectively, earlier in the same range.

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Dust coats the San Juan Mountains of Colorado in the spring of 2009. Photo courtesy of Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.

Early melting of the snowpack leads to a chain reaction throughout the ecosystem.  Researchers have now estimated that the dust-on-snow problem means a loss of approximately 5 percent of the Colorado River’s annual flow before it ever reaches the Grand Canyon.  That is enough water to supply the needs of Los Angeles for eighteen months!

The Colorado Plateau, which includes all of southeastern Utah, is one of the primary sources of airborne dust emissions in the United States. It is likely that soil destabilizing activities such as oil and gas development and off-road vehicle use on the Colorado Plateau in Utah contribute to the windborne dust in the mountains of Colorado which melts snow early.

The best way to reduce windborne soil erosion is to prevent surface disturbing activities on fragile desert soils.  Designating Utah’s wild redrock country as wilderness will have the dual benefit of keeping fragile desert soils in place and maintaining the ecological and climate-buffering functions of intact landscapes.

Read the reports here and here.