Spring heat waves drive record western United States snow melt in 2021 — Environmental Research Letters #ActOnClimate

Figure 1. Western US peak SWE and precipitation anomalies, and US Drought Monitor maps and timeseries. (a) Percent of 1991–2020 median peak SWE in 2021 at SNOTEL stations. (b) Percent of 1991–2020 median precipitation in April 2021 at SNOTEL and Applied Climate Information System (ACIS) stations, (c) US Drought Monitor on 30 March 2021, (d) US Drought Monitor on 27 July 2021, (e) weekly timeseries of western US percent area in extreme drought or worse based on the US Drought Monitor. Timeseries data generated by https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/.

Click the link to read the article on the IOP website (Daniel J McEvoy and Benjamin J Hatchett). Here’s the abstract:

Throughout the western US snow melted at an alarming rate in April 2021 and by May 1, hydrologic conditions were severely degraded with declining summer water supply forecasts compared to earlier in the winter. The objectives of this study are to (a) quantify the magnitude and climatological context of observed melt rates of snow water equivalent (SWE) and (b) underpin the hydrometeorological drivers during April 2021 based on atmospheric reanalysis and gridded meteorological data. Peak SWE indicated snow drought conditions were widespread (41% of stations between 5th and 20th percentile) but not necessarily extreme (only 9% of stations less than 5th percentile). Here, using observations from the Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) network we found record 7 day snow melt rates (median of −99 mm; ±one standard deviation of 61 mm) occurred at 24% of SNOTEL sites and in all 11 Western states. Strong upper atmospheric ridging that began initially in the north Pacific with eastward propagation by mid-April to the Pacific Northwest Coast led to near-surface conditions across the western US conducive to rapid snow loss. One heat wave occurred inland across the Rockies the first week of April and then later in April, a second heat wave impacted the Cascades and northern California. We find that ripening of the snowpack by both record high surface solar radiation and air temperatures were factors in driving the rapid snow melt. Equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures and the La Niña pattern that peaked in winter along with an eastward propagating and intensifying Madden–Julian Oscillation were likely responsible for driving the placement, strength, and progression of the north Pacific Ridge. This study documents the role of two extreme spring ‘sunny heat wave’ events on snowpack, and the cascading drought impacts which are anticipated to become more frequent in a warming world.

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