Paper: High Resolution SnowModel Simulations Reveal Future Elevation-Dependent Snow Loss and Earlier, Flashier Surface Water Input for the Upper Colorado River Basin — AGU

We are seeing the best start to our snowpack in over a decade. But it is only a start – most of the winter season has yet to unfold, major reservoirs hold below-average storage, and last years’ experience demonstrates that powerful #storms can punctuate but not end a #drought. Photo credit: California DWR

Click the link to access the paper on the AGU website (John C. HammondGraham A. SexstoneAnnie L. PutmanTheodore B. BarnhartDavid M. ReyJessica M. DriscollGlen E. ListonKristen L. RasmussenDaniel McGrathSteven R. FassnachtStephanie K. Kampf). Here’s the abstract and plain language summery:

Continued climate warming is reducing seasonal snowpacks in the western United States, where >50% of historical water supplies were snowmelt-derived. In the Upper Colorado River Basin, declining snow water equivalent (SWE) and altered surface water input (SWI, rainfall and snowmelt available to enter the soil) timing and magnitude affect streamflow generation and water availability. To adapt effectively to future conditions, we need to understand current spatiotemporal distributions of SWE and SWI and how they may change in future decades. We developed 100-m SnowModel simulations for water years 2001–2013 and two scenarios: control (CTL) and pseudo-global-warming (PGW). The PGW fraction of precipitation falling as snow was lower relative to CTL, except for November–April at high elevations. PGW peak SWE was lower for low (−45%) and mid elevations (−14%), while the date of peak SWE was uniformly earlier in the year for all elevations (17–23 days). Currently unmonitored high elevation snow represented a greater fraction of total PGW SWE. PGW peak daily SWI was higher for all elevations (30%–42%), while the dates of SWI peaks and centroids were earlier in the year for all elevations under PGW. PGW displayed elevated winter SWI, lower summer SWI, and changes in spring SWI timing were elevation-dependent. Although PGW peak SWI was elevated and earlier compared to CTL, SWI was more evenly distributed throughout the year for PGW. These simulated shifts in the timing and magnitude of SWE and SWI have broad implications for water management in dry, snow-dominated regions.

Key Points

  • Projections show lower peak snow water equivalent (SWE) below 3,000 m and earlier peak SWE, peak surface water input (SWI) at all elevations
  • Greater future peak SWI and reduced annual snow-derived SWI for all elevations, with a more even SWI distribution throughout the year
  • A greater fraction of future SWE will be in high elevations that are currently unmonitored

Plain Language Summary

Snowpack water storage has historically functioned as a reliable extension of manmade reservoir storage. Loss of this storage has consequences for water resource management, ecological communities, and natural hazards including wildfire. We modeled snow accumulation and melt at high spatial resolution in the Upper Colorado River Basin to assess patterns in the timing and magnitude of snow storage and snowmelt for historical and future scenarios. We analyze these patterns in relation to existing snow monitoring station coverage, and ask how this coverage may need to change in future decades to better represent water availability. Our results indicate widespread future snow storage losses at lower elevations, but limited change at higher elevations that will likely remain conducive to seasonal snow accumulation and melt for decades to come. Peak snow storage and peak snowmelt occurred earlier for all elevations in future years, with increased peak surface water input noted at all elevations. A greater fraction of future snow storage will be in currently unmonitored high elevations. Projected elevation dependent changes from this study have implications for other dry, snow dominated regions, and additional work is needed to evaluate combined effects of widespread snow loss and earlier, flashier input on coordinated water management.

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