Snowpack Melt Trend Signals Impending Summer Water Crisis in Western Regions

Front Range Colorado

A new study from the University of Colorado Boulder published in Nature Communications Earth & Environment has revealed that climate change is causing snow in the mountain ranges of the Western U.S. and Canada to melt earlier, with more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow. This results in a reduction in snowpack water storage, which could potentially impact agriculture, increase wildfire risk, and disrupt municipal water supplies in the summer. Credit: Kate Hale

A study from the University of Colorado Boulder reveals that climate change is causing earlier snowmelt and increased rainfall in the mountain ranges of Western U.S. and Canada, leading to a decrease in snowpack water storage. This shift could impact agriculture, wildfire risk, and municipal water supplies. Over 60 years, more than 25% of the Mountain West saw a significant decline in snowpack water storage. Researchers have introduced a new Snow Storage Index (SSI) to help manage water resources more efficiently amidst global warming.

Snow is melting earlier, and more rain is falling instead of snow in the mountain ranges of the Western U.S. and Canada, leading to a leaner snowpack that could impact agriculture, wildfire risk, and municipal water supplies come summer, according to a new study from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Published today (May 22) in Nature Communications Earth & Environment, the study documents more than 60 years of change in snowpack water storage across Western North America. It found that from 1950 to 2013, snowpack water storage has significantly declined in more than 25% of the Mountain West, in part because more snow is melting during winter and spring, eroding this seasonal boundary.

“On average and in every mountainous region that we looked at, snow melt is occurring closer in time to when it fell,” said Kate Hale, lead author of the study and a 2022 geography graduate. “The timing of water availability is shifting toward earlier in the springtime, with less snow melt and water availability later in the summertime, suggesting that there will be water scarcity later in the year.”

CU Boulder Snow Survey Front Range Colorado

From CU-Boulder’s snow survey this past May 2022. Collecting snow measurements near the Continental Divide in the Front Range, CO. Credit: Kate Hale

Timing is everything

The Western U.S. and Canada depend on snow for most of their water. The Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevadas and other mountain ranges have long served as, essentially, water towers for the region: They store snow throughout the winter, which then melts and becomes available as water in spring and summer, when demand is greatest.

Every year on April 1, state and regional water managers use a metric known as snow water equivalent (SWE)—how much water will be produced when an amount of snow melts—to predict and plan for water resources that year, said Hale, now a postdoctoral researcher at University of Vermont.

But that April 1 snapshot is exactly that: one moment in time. It doesn’t reveal if that snow slowly accumulated over the past six months, if it all fell in one giant heap on March 31, or if it was already melting.

Mountainous Western North America Snow Storage Index Decline

92% of mountainous western North America has shown a decline in Snow Storage Index from 1950-2013. This indicates a decrease in the capability of these regions to act as water towers for the surrounding area. Credit: Kate Hale

“From a hydrologic perspective, the only thing that’s unique about snow is that it delays the timing of water input to watersheds. And just looking at a snapshot of snow water equivalent doesn’t give you a sense as to how long that snow water equivalent has been on the ground,” said Noah Molotch, associate professor of geography and fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at CU Boulder.

So Hale used two publicly available data sources to develop a new measurement known as Snow Storage Index (SSI) that incorporates the timing and amount of snowfall, as well as snowmelt, before and after April 1. In contrast to the singular moment in time captured by SWE, Hale’s SSI shows a metaphorical video: incorporating into one number, the time between when rain or snow falls on a landscape in the winter season and when it becomes available to that area as surface water.

CU Boulder Snow Survey 2022 Front Range Colorado

The study analyzed more than 60 years of snowpack water storage data, noting a significant decline in over 25% of the Mountain West from 1950 to 2013. This is partly due to snow melting earlier in winter and spring, causing water availability to shift to earlier in the spring, suggesting potential water scarcity later in the year. Credit: Kate Hale

“The snow storage index allows us to look at snow water storage, not just in the context of how much is there at any given time, but the duration of that storage on the ground,” said Molotch.

This allowed the researchers to analyze how well each mountainous region of the West has acted as a water tower over the past 60 years and discover that their performance has been declining across the board.

Managing water now and for the future

A “high” SSI—a number as close to 1.0 as possible—was found in places where snowfall is very seasonal. In the Cascades, for example, snow accumulates in the fall and winter season, and is stored up to six months before melting somewhat continuously in the spring and summer. Here in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, however, the SSI is lower—somewhere between 0 and 0.5—which means that snow both accumulates and melts throughout the colder half of the year.

But because the Rockies and the Front Range are already used to this alternating pattern of snowfall and snowmelt during winter and spring seasons, as a region it may adjust easier to similar patterns of decreased snowpack water storage associated with global warming. The mountain regions near the West Coast that are highly reliant on snowpack meltwater in the spring and summer, however, may be in for a painful adjustment when that water melts earlier in the year—and is simply no longer available come late summer.

Collecting Snow Samples Front Range Colorado

The researchers developed a new measurement called the Snow Storage Index (SSI) to assess the timing and amount of snowfall and snowmelt. The results showed a declining performance of the region’s natural ‘water towers’, underscoring the importance of better water resource management in the face of global warming. Credit: Kate Hale

The researchers hope that this new measurement can serve as a tool for scientists and water resource managers to make better predictions and, when necessary, plan ahead for less.

Half a century ago, an era of dam building in the Western United States allowed the region to flourish in terms of access to water for cities and for agriculture, said Molotch. But as these “water towers” melt away, so too may the reservoirs they filled.

“The snowpack is eroding and disappearing before our eyes. That’s going to present challenges in terms of managing the infrastructure that’s allowed the Western United States to flourish over the last 100 years,” said Molotch.

Reference: “Recent decreases in snow water storage in western North America” by Katherine E. Hale, Keith S. Jennings, Keith N. Musselman, Ben Livneh and Noah P. Molotch, 22 May 2023, Nature Communications Earth & Environment.
DOI: 10.1038/s43247-023-00751-3

Additional authors on this publication include: Keith Jennings, Lynker, Boulder, Colorado; Keith Musselman, Department of Geography and the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), CU Boulder; and Ben Livneh, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering, CU Boulder.

5 Comments on "Snowpack Melt Trend Signals Impending Summer Water Crisis in Western Regions"

  1. Edward Hoffman | May 22, 2023 at 9:29 am | Reply

    These climate change “scientists” need to travel outside of Boulder Colorado. From Reno on up north everything is fine. Snow pack is at 272% of normal. California needs to stop dumping more than a trillion acre feet of water into the Pacific Ocean to “save” the pacific smelt and build more reservoirs! Gotta ask yourself who funded this study; George Soros!

  2. Parker Shonnard | May 23, 2023 at 12:31 am | Reply

    Agreed, hilarious to me this article comes out right after one of the heaviest snow years on record. And only 60 years of study on weather patterns and seasons out if thousands of years is not very telling

  3. Build more dams.

  4. Another study done with lack of data, short term 6 decades of weather patterns, doesn’t even go as far back as the dust bowl, good thing you have so many non thinkers to spoon feed your b.s. to

  5. Who pays for your research grant?

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