City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

February 2, 2017

February 1st

Filed under: Weather — canopus56 @ 5:01 pm

An Unusual Winter

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2:30 p.m. Air temperatures have increased along with increased levels of pollution, and I escape to the canyon to get out of a heavy air pollution day. The snow pack in the lower canyon is melting, the stream is running higher, and the south facing slopes of lower canyon walls reveal about one-half bare grass. Along the road, one of the few remaining dried maple leaves has fallen from a tree and landed on a clod of snow next to the road and facing the Sun. Throughout the day, the maple leaf warmed by the Sun has melted in perfect silhouette halfway through the clump, or about four or five inches.

I see no deer or elk and hear only two chickadees. Over the winter of 2014-2015, I kept a detailed log of wildlife encounters, and for January 2015, a much warmer month than January 2017, I recorded 275 visual sightings of birds and mammals. This is far more than the few that I informally noted for this January, and I attribute the difference to this January’s heavier snow and colder temperatures. In past heavy snow years, deer and elk herds have declined by at most by thirty percent.

To quantify how exceptional this year is, I turn to the many automated snow, rain, and temperature gauges that ring the valley and City Creek Canyon. The premier system is the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOTEL system. In or above the canyon there are two automated SNOTEL weather stations: one at Louis Meadows about 2.1 miles above the end of the road at 6,700 feet in elevation and another on Lookout Peak at the east end of the upper canyon at 8,200 feet in elevation.

The NRCS reports that 129% of normal precipitation at Lewis Meadows using a baseline of 2000-2010, but this does not fully explain how extraordinary snowfall has been this January (NRCS, 2016) nor does that value give a sense of the distribution of weather events. Using data analysis, I prepare empirical total precipitation distribution charts for readings at both Louis Meadows and Lookout Peak, and in January 2017, Louis Meadows received record precipitation of 6.9 water equivalent inches or 17.5 centimeters of water. Newly fallen snow is only 6%-11% water, and these means about 175 centimeters, or about 5 3/4 feet, of new snow has fallen here since last November. This is a new maximum for this station since it began recording in 2000; it is a new 100th percentile event. On September 8th, I ran past the Louis Meadows Station over a trail that was covered with a palette of red, brown, and yellow fallen leaves (Sept. 8th). That mat of leaves now sits under a layer of condensed or melted to 29 inches in depth. The higher Lookout Peak Station shows similar results. The Lookout Peak Station records 93rd percentile precipitation in January and a snowpack that is 41 inches in depth. (The Lookout station was not working during one peak snow season of 1993.)

This explains why I have seen fewer animals in the canyon this January as compared to January of 2015. Harsh weather has driven mammals and birds from the canyon. I was hoping to see a repeat of abundant wildlife during the first five months of 2015, but this winter and spring will be much different.

The many automated snow, rain, and temperature gauges that ring the valley and City Creek Canyon are a technological marvel. The premier system is the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOTEL. The Conservation Service is an agency of the Department of Agriculture. The SNOTEL system consists of about 900 detection stations spread across the lower forty-eight western United States and Alaska. SNOTEL stands for SNOw TELemetry, but radio signals cannot reach the many SNOTEL stations located in the bottom of remote canyons because mountains block the signal. The SNOTEL system relies on space dust bounce to its measurements over the horizon and back to a central computer. Two powerful transmitters – one is in Ogden forty miles of north of the canyon – emit television frequency signals that bounce off some of the trillion grains of dust that fall onto the Earth from outer space each day. Each remote SNOTEL station in the bottom of a canyon receives this signal bounced from Ogden instructing the station when to report its results. At its appointed time, an individual SNOTEL station similarly bounces its report of weather measurements off space dust grains and back to its controlling base. The Lookout Peak station began transmitting in 1989; the Louis Meadows Station in 2000.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on February 1st, 1857, he sees a flock of snow buntings. In Utah, Lazuli’s Bunting can be seen, but only in the summer.

On February 1st, 2011, the Salt Lake Rotary Club, who built Rotary Park in upper City Creek Canyon in 1921 and renovated Ottinger Hall in Memory Grove in 2005, celebrated its 100th anniversary (Salt Lake Tribune). On February 1st, 2007, Salt Lake City Councilman Eric Jergensen proposes improvements to City Creek and Memory Grove, including a loop bicycle and running trail (Salt Lake Tribune). On February 1st, 1925, E.E. Rich, President of the Third Precinct Improvement Association proposed that a World War I memorial bridge be built across City Creek Canyon from Sixth Avenue on the east to 200 North Street on the west. The bridge would serve as a memorial, a public ornament, and a transportation convenience (Salt Lake Telegram). On February 1st, 1899, a heated argument broke out between Salt Lake City Council members vying for supervisory jurisdiction over the city engineering department. The department was then under the Sewer Committee. A workman employed by the city in City Creek Canyon applied for $300 compensation for an injury sustained in a rockfall (id). On February 1st, 1895, the City and the power company remained embroiled in a payment dispute resulting the power company disconnecting 125 arc street lamps throughout the city (Salt Lake Tribune).

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