Document Details

Winter melt trends portend widespread declines in snow water resources

Keith N. Musselman, Nans Addor, Julie A. Vano, Noah P. Molotch | April 5, 2021
Summary

In many mountainous regions, winter precipitation accumulates as snow that melts in the spring and summer, which provides water to one billion people globally. Climate warming and earlier snowmelt compromise this natural water storage. Although snowpack trend analyses commonly focus on the snow water equivalent (SWE), we propose that trends in the accumulation season snowmelt serve as a critical indicator of hydrological change. Here we compare long-term changes in the snowmelt and SWE from snow monitoring stations in western North America and find 34% of stations exhibit increasing winter snowmelt trends (P < 0.05), a factor of three larger than the 11% showing SWE declines (P < 0.05). Snowmelt trends are highly sensitive to temperature and an underlying warming signal, whereas SWE trends are more sensitive to precipitation variability. Thus, continental-scale snow water resources are in steeper decline than inferred from SWE trends alone. More winter snowmelt will complicate future water resource planning and management.

Product Description

In many mountainous regions, winter precipitation accumulates as snow that melts in the spring and summer, which provides water to one billion people globally. Climate warming and earlier snowmelt compromise this natural water storage. Although snowpack trend analyses commonly focus on the snow water equivalent (SWE), we propose that trends in the accumulation season snowmelt serve as a critical indicator of hydrological change. Here we compare long-term changes in the snowmelt and SWE from snow monitoring stations in western North America and find 34% of stations exhibit increasing winter snowmelt trends (P < 0.05), a factor of three larger than the 11% showing SWE declines (P < 0.05). Snowmelt trends are highly sensitive to temperature and an underlying warming signal, whereas SWE trends are more sensitive to precipitation variability. Thus, continental-scale snow water resources are in steeper decline than inferred from SWE trends alone. More winter snowmelt will complicate future water resource planning and management.

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Musselman-et-al

Keywords:

climate change, upper watershed management, water supply forecasting