drought and snowpack

At the same time we are experiencing drought and groundwater depletion in populous, food growing regions, there is concern about long-term declines in snowpack. Here are a few papers on the situation – two about the western United States and one about Asia.

Large near-term projected snowpack loss over the western United States

Peak runoff in streams and rivers of the western United States is strongly influenced by melting of accumulated mountain snowpack. A significant decline in this resource has a direct connection to streamflow, with substantial economic and societal impacts. Observations and reanalyses indicate that between the 1980s and 2000s, there was a 10–20% loss in the annual maximum amount of water contained in the region’s snowpack. Here we show that this loss is consistent with results from a large ensemble of climate simulations forced with natural and anthropogenic changes, but is inconsistent with simulations forced by natural changes alone. A further loss of up to 60% is projected within the next 30 years. Uncertainties in loss estimates depend on the size and the rate of response to continued anthropogenic forcing and the magnitude and phasing of internal decadal variability. The projected losses have serious implications for the hydropower, municipal and agricultural sectors in the region.

The twenty-first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future

Between 2000 and 2014, annual Colorado River flows averaged 19% below the 1906–1999 average, the worst 15-year drought on record. At least one-sixth to one-half (average at one-third) of this loss is due to unprecedented temperatures (0.9°C above the 1906–1999 average), confirming model-based analysis that continued warming will likely further reduce flows. Whereas it is virtually certain that warming will continue with additional emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, there has been no observed trend toward greater precipitation in the Colorado Basin, nor are climate models in agreement that there should be a trend. Moreover, there is a significant risk of decadal and multidecadal drought in the coming century, indicating that any increase in mean precipitation will likely be offset during periods of prolonged drought. Recently published estimates of Colorado River flow sensitivity to temperature combined with a large number of recent climate model-based temperature projections indicate that continued business-as-usual warming will drive temperature-induced declines in river flow, conservatively −20% by midcentury and −35% by end-century, with support for losses exceeding −30% at midcentury and −55% at end-century. Precipitation increases may moderate these declines somewhat, but to date no such increases are evident and there is no model agreement on future precipitation changes. These results, combined with the increasing likelihood of prolonged drought in the river basin, suggest that future climate change impacts on the Colorado River flows will be much more serious than currently assumed, especially if substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions do not occur.

Changes in seasonal snow water equivalent distribution in High Mountain Asia (1987 to 2009)

Snow meltwaters account for most of the yearly water budgets of many catchments in High Mountain Asia (HMA). We examine trends in snow water equivalent (SWE) using passive microwave data (1987 to 2009). We find an overall decrease in SWE in HMA, despite regions of increased SWE in the Pamir, Kunlun Shan, Eastern Himalaya, and Eastern Tien Shan. Although the average decline in annual SWE across HMA (contributing area, 2641 × 103 km2) is low (average, −0.3%), annual SWE losses conceal distinct seasonal and spatial heterogeneities across the study region. For example, the Tien Shan has seen both strong increases in winter SWE and sharp declines in spring and summer SWE. In the majority of catchments, the most negative SWE trends are found in mid-elevation zones, which often correspond to the regions of highest snow-water storage and are somewhat distinct from glaciated areas. Negative changes in SWE storage in these mid-elevation zones have strong implications for downstream water availability.

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