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The Uneven Response of Different Snow Measures to Human-Induced Climate Warming

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  • 1 Division of Climate, Atmospheric Sciences, and Physical Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California
  • | 2 Division of Climate, Atmospheric Sciences, and Physical Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and U.S. Geological Survey, La Jolla, California
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Abstract

The effect of human-induced climate warming on different snow measures in the western United States is compared by calculating the time required to achieve a statistically significant linear trend in the different measures, using time series derived from regionally downscaled global climate models. The measures examined include the water content of the spring snowpack, total cold-season snowfall, fraction of winter precipitation that falls as snow, length of the snow season, and fraction of cold-season precipitation retained in the spring snowpack, as well as temperature and precipitation. Various stakeholders may be interested in different sets of these variables. It is found that temperature and the fraction of winter precipitation that falls as snow exhibit significant trends first, followed in 5–10 years by the fraction of cold-season precipitation retained in the spring snowpack, and later still by the water content of the spring snowpack. Change in total cold-season snowfall is least detectable of all the measures, since it is strongly linked to precipitation, which has large natural variability and only a weak anthropogenic trend in the western United States. Averaging over increasingly wider areas monotonically increases the signal-to-noise ratio of the 1950–2025 linear trend from 0.15 to 0.37, depending on the snow measure.

Corresponding author address: David W. Pierce, Division of Climate, Atmospheric Science, and Physical Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Mail Stop 0224, La Jolla, CA 92093-0224. E-mail: dpierce@ucsd.edu

Abstract

The effect of human-induced climate warming on different snow measures in the western United States is compared by calculating the time required to achieve a statistically significant linear trend in the different measures, using time series derived from regionally downscaled global climate models. The measures examined include the water content of the spring snowpack, total cold-season snowfall, fraction of winter precipitation that falls as snow, length of the snow season, and fraction of cold-season precipitation retained in the spring snowpack, as well as temperature and precipitation. Various stakeholders may be interested in different sets of these variables. It is found that temperature and the fraction of winter precipitation that falls as snow exhibit significant trends first, followed in 5–10 years by the fraction of cold-season precipitation retained in the spring snowpack, and later still by the water content of the spring snowpack. Change in total cold-season snowfall is least detectable of all the measures, since it is strongly linked to precipitation, which has large natural variability and only a weak anthropogenic trend in the western United States. Averaging over increasingly wider areas monotonically increases the signal-to-noise ratio of the 1950–2025 linear trend from 0.15 to 0.37, depending on the snow measure.

Corresponding author address: David W. Pierce, Division of Climate, Atmospheric Science, and Physical Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Mail Stop 0224, La Jolla, CA 92093-0224. E-mail: dpierce@ucsd.edu
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