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Warming is Driving Decreases in Snow Fractions While Runoff Efficiency Remains Mostly Unchanged in Snow-Covered Areas of the Western United States

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  • 1 U.S. Geological Survey, Denver, Colorado
  • | 2 U.S. Geological Survey, Lawrence, Kansas
  • | 3 U.S. Geological Survey, Denver, Colorado
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Abstract

Winter snowfall and accumulation is an important component of the surface water supply in the western United States. In these areas, increasing winter temperatures T associated with global warming can influence the amount of winter precipitation P that falls as snow S. In this study we examine long-term trends in the fraction of winter P that falls as S (Sfrac) for 175 hydrologic units (HUs) in snow-covered areas of the western United States for the period 1951–2014. Because S is a substantial contributor to runoff R across most of the western United States, we also examine long-term trends in water-year runoff efficiency [computed as water-year R/water-year P (Reff)] for the same 175 HUs. In that most S records are short in length, we use model-simulated S and R from a monthly water balance model. Results for Sfrac indicate long-term negative trends for most of the 175 HUs, with negative trends for 139 (~79%) of the HUs being statistically significant at a 95% confidence level (p = 0.05). Additionally, results indicate that the long-term negative trends in Sfrac have been largely driven by increases in T. In contrast, time series of Reff for the 175 HUs indicate a mix of positive and negative long-term trends, with few trends being statistically significant (at p = 0.05). Although there has been a notable shift in the timing of R to earlier in the year for most HUs, there have not been substantial decreases in water-year R for the 175 HUs.

For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Gregory J. McCabe, gmccabe@usgs.gov

Abstract

Winter snowfall and accumulation is an important component of the surface water supply in the western United States. In these areas, increasing winter temperatures T associated with global warming can influence the amount of winter precipitation P that falls as snow S. In this study we examine long-term trends in the fraction of winter P that falls as S (Sfrac) for 175 hydrologic units (HUs) in snow-covered areas of the western United States for the period 1951–2014. Because S is a substantial contributor to runoff R across most of the western United States, we also examine long-term trends in water-year runoff efficiency [computed as water-year R/water-year P (Reff)] for the same 175 HUs. In that most S records are short in length, we use model-simulated S and R from a monthly water balance model. Results for Sfrac indicate long-term negative trends for most of the 175 HUs, with negative trends for 139 (~79%) of the HUs being statistically significant at a 95% confidence level (p = 0.05). Additionally, results indicate that the long-term negative trends in Sfrac have been largely driven by increases in T. In contrast, time series of Reff for the 175 HUs indicate a mix of positive and negative long-term trends, with few trends being statistically significant (at p = 0.05). Although there has been a notable shift in the timing of R to earlier in the year for most HUs, there have not been substantial decreases in water-year R for the 175 HUs.

For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Gregory J. McCabe, gmccabe@usgs.gov
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