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Warming Mountain West winters threaten water supplies and ski industry

 A look at significant snowmelt on Peavine Peak above Reno, Nev., on April 14, 2021.
Jesse Juchtzer
DRI Science
A look at significant snowmelt on Peavine Peak above Reno, Nev., on April 14, 2021.

Since 1970, average winter temperatures have risen by nearly 4 degrees across the nation, according to research group Climate Central, which analyzed data from 240 cities.

In the Mountain West, Nevada winters have warmed the most, jumping nearly 5 degrees in Reno and Las Vegas. Other significant increases across the region are in Albuquerque, N.M. (3 degrees), Boise, Idaho (2.3 degrees), Colorado Springs, Colo. (2.3 degrees) and Salt Lake City, Utah (2.1 degrees). The biggest increase in Wyoming was a 1-degree uptick in Casper.

In some places, the average winter temperature has actually dropped. In Denver, for example, winters have cooled by 0.8 degrees.

The broader trend of winter warming, however, can impact the West in a number of ways, said Kaitlyn Trudeau, a senior research associate at Climate Central.

“The big thing is affecting our water supply,” Trudeau said. “As winters get warmer it can reduce the snowpack. We have reservoirs, and … can save up water, but we really rely on that winter snowpack to really get us through the rest of the year.”

Economies that rely on winter recreation – a multibillion-dollar industry – can take a hit, too, she said. Rising temperatures and lower snowpacks make it difficult for ski resorts to maintain snow and ice.

Warmer winters can also damage farmers’ crops, especially fruits and nuts that depend on a winter chill. What’s more, some invasive insects can flourish and harm crops during the spring and summer.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Kaleb Roedel