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Climate change has strong influence on warm winter across Mountain West, study finds

This is an image of tiny snowman on the grass melting in the sun.
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The average winter temperature in the U.S. was 37.6 degrees, which is 5.4 degrees hotter than average, according to NOAA.

The federal government says this is the nation’s warmest winter on record. And a new study shows human-caused climate change was the driver in many cities, including parts of the Mountain West region.

The average winter temperature in the U.S. was 37.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 5.4 degrees hotter than average, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The federal agency says this comes on the heels of the nation’s third-warmest February, when the average temperature was 7.2 degrees higher than normal at 41.1 degrees.

Nationwide, warming winter temperatures were strongly influenced by climate change, according to a report by Climate Central. The research group analyzed roughly 250 cities and found about 85% of the population felt at least one winter day with warm temperatures driven by climate change, which is mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“We live on a warming planet because we have too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that's just boosting temperatures everywhere,” said Andrew Pershing, vice president for science at Climate Central.

The report shows more than half of the country felt at least five or more winter days clearly warmed by the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. In the Mountain West, that was the case in Reno and Las Vegas, Nev.; Boise, Idaho; Albuquerque and Sante Fe, N.M.; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Grand Junction, Colo.

In Wyoming, although there were some significantly warmer days, the average winter temperatures across the state did not vary significantly enough to signal a recognizable climate impact.

Pershing said the broader warming trend is causing winters in many areas to feel more like fall.

“We’re now getting to the point where warming is much more noticeable to people when they look around and see the world changing,” he said. “You can really start to see it changing in your lifetime, sometimes even in your kids’ lifetimes, and that, I think, is very concerning.”

To that end, winter warming can disrupt economies that rely on ice and snow, damage some farmers’ crops, and cause longer allergy seasons, he added.

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.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.