Climatic Controls on the Snowmelt Hydrology of the Northern Rocky Mountains

Gregory T. Pederson * U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, Bozeman, Montana
School of Natural Resources, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona

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Stephen T. Gray Water Resource Data System, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming

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Toby Ault Geosciences Department, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona

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Wendy Marsh Big Sky Institute, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana

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Daniel B. Fagre * U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, Bozeman, Montana

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Andrew G. Bunn ** Huxley College, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington

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Connie A. Woodhouse School of Geography and Development, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona

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Lisa J. Graumlich College of the Environment, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

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Abstract

The northern Rocky Mountains (NRMs) are a critical headwaters region with the majority of water resources originating from mountain snowpack. Observations showing declines in western U.S. snowpack have implications for water resources and biophysical processes in high-mountain environments. This study investigates oceanic and atmospheric controls underlying changes in timing, variability, and trends documented across the entire hydroclimatic-monitoring system within critical NRM watersheds. Analyses were conducted using records from 25 snow telemetry (SNOTEL) stations, 148 1 April snow course records, stream gauge records from 14 relatively unimpaired rivers, and 37 valley meteorological stations. Over the past four decades, midelevation SNOTEL records show a tendency toward decreased snowpack with peak snow water equivalent (SWE) arriving and melting out earlier. Temperature records show significant seasonal and annual decreases in the number of frost days (days ≤0°C) and changes in spring minimum temperatures that correspond with atmospheric circulation changes and surface–albedo feedbacks in March and April. Warmer spring temperatures coupled with increases in mean and variance of spring precipitation correspond strongly to earlier snowmeltout, an increased number of snow-free days, and observed changes in streamflow timing and discharge. The majority of the variability in peak and total annual snowpack and streamflow, however, is explained by season-dependent interannual-to-interdecadal changes in atmospheric circulation associated with Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures. Over recent decades, increased spring precipitation appears to be buffering NRM total annual streamflow from what would otherwise be greater snow-related declines in hydrologic yield. Results have important implications for ecosystems, water resources, and long-lead-forecasting capabilities.

Corresponding author address: Gregory T. Pederson, U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, 2327 University Way (Box 2), Bozeman, MT 59715. Email: gpederson@usgs.gov

Abstract

The northern Rocky Mountains (NRMs) are a critical headwaters region with the majority of water resources originating from mountain snowpack. Observations showing declines in western U.S. snowpack have implications for water resources and biophysical processes in high-mountain environments. This study investigates oceanic and atmospheric controls underlying changes in timing, variability, and trends documented across the entire hydroclimatic-monitoring system within critical NRM watersheds. Analyses were conducted using records from 25 snow telemetry (SNOTEL) stations, 148 1 April snow course records, stream gauge records from 14 relatively unimpaired rivers, and 37 valley meteorological stations. Over the past four decades, midelevation SNOTEL records show a tendency toward decreased snowpack with peak snow water equivalent (SWE) arriving and melting out earlier. Temperature records show significant seasonal and annual decreases in the number of frost days (days ≤0°C) and changes in spring minimum temperatures that correspond with atmospheric circulation changes and surface–albedo feedbacks in March and April. Warmer spring temperatures coupled with increases in mean and variance of spring precipitation correspond strongly to earlier snowmeltout, an increased number of snow-free days, and observed changes in streamflow timing and discharge. The majority of the variability in peak and total annual snowpack and streamflow, however, is explained by season-dependent interannual-to-interdecadal changes in atmospheric circulation associated with Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures. Over recent decades, increased spring precipitation appears to be buffering NRM total annual streamflow from what would otherwise be greater snow-related declines in hydrologic yield. Results have important implications for ecosystems, water resources, and long-lead-forecasting capabilities.

Corresponding author address: Gregory T. Pederson, U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, 2327 University Way (Box 2), Bozeman, MT 59715. Email: gpederson@usgs.gov

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