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H. G. Hidalgo, T. Das, M. D. Dettinger, D. R. Cayan, D. W. Pierce, T. P. Barnett, G. Bala, A. Mirin, A. W. Wood, C. Bonfils, B. D. Santer, and T. Nozawa

Abstract

This article applies formal detection and attribution techniques to investigate the nature of observed shifts in the timing of streamflow in the western United States. Previous studies have shown that the snow hydrology of the western United States has changed in the second half of the twentieth century. Such changes manifest themselves in the form of more rain and less snow, in reductions in the snow water contents, and in earlier snowmelt and associated advances in streamflow “center” timing (the day in the “water-year” on average when half the water-year flow at a point has passed). However, with one exception over a more limited domain, no other study has attempted to formally attribute these changes to anthropogenic increases of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Using the observations together with a set of global climate model simulations and a hydrologic model (applied to three major hydrological regions of the western United States—the California region, the upper Colorado River basin, and the Columbia River basin), it is found that the observed trends toward earlier “center” timing of snowmelt-driven streamflows in the western United States since 1950 are detectably different from natural variability (significant at the p < 0.05 level). Furthermore, the nonnatural parts of these changes can be attributed confidently to climate changes induced by anthropogenic greenhouse gases, aerosols, ozone, and land use. The signal from the Columbia dominates the analysis, and it is the only basin that showed a detectable signal when the analysis was performed on individual basins. It should be noted that although climate change is an important signal, other climatic processes have also contributed to the hydrologic variability of large basins in the western United States.

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Céline Bonfils, Benjamin D. Santer, David W. Pierce, Hugo G. Hidalgo, Govindasamy Bala, Tapash Das, Tim P. Barnett, Daniel R. Cayan, Charles Doutriaux, Andrew W. Wood, Art Mirin, and Toru Nozawa

Abstract

Large changes in the hydrology of the western United States have been observed since the mid-twentieth century. These include a reduction in the amount of precipitation arriving as snow, a decline in snowpack at low and midelevations, and a shift toward earlier arrival of both snowmelt and the centroid (center of mass) of streamflows. To project future water supply reliability, it is crucial to obtain a better understanding of the underlying cause or causes for these changes. A regional warming is often posited as the cause of these changes without formal testing of different competitive explanations for the warming. In this study, a rigorous detection and attribution analysis is performed to determine the causes of the late winter/early spring changes in hydrologically relevant temperature variables over mountain ranges of the western United States. Natural internal climate variability, as estimated from two long control climate model simulations, is insufficient to explain the rapid increase in daily minimum and maximum temperatures, the sharp decline in frost days, and the rise in degree-days above 0°C (a simple proxy for temperature-driven snowmelt). These observed changes are also inconsistent with the model-predicted responses to variability in solar irradiance and volcanic activity. The observations are consistent with climate simulations that include the combined effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gases and aerosols. It is found that, for each temperature variable considered, an anthropogenic signal is identifiable in observational fields. The results are robust to uncertainties in model-estimated fingerprints and natural variability noise, to the choice of statistical downscaling method, and to various processing options in the detection and attribution method.

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David W. Pierce, Tim P. Barnett, Hugo G. Hidalgo, Tapash Das, Céline Bonfils, Benjamin D. Santer, Govindasamy Bala, Michael D. Dettinger, Daniel R. Cayan, Art Mirin, Andrew W. Wood, and Toru Nozawa

Abstract

Observations show snowpack has declined across much of the western United States over the period 1950–99. This reduction has important social and economic implications, as water retained in the snowpack from winter storms forms an important part of the hydrological cycle and water supply in the region. A formal model-based detection and attribution (D–A) study of these reductions is performed. The detection variable is the ratio of 1 April snow water equivalent (SWE) to water-year-to-date precipitation (P), chosen to reduce the effect of P variability on the results. Estimates of natural internal climate variability are obtained from 1600 years of two control simulations performed with fully coupled ocean–atmosphere climate models. Estimates of the SWE/P response to anthropogenic greenhouse gases, ozone, and some aerosols are taken from multiple-member ensembles of perturbation experiments run with two models. The D–A shows the observations and anthropogenically forced models have greater SWE/P reductions than can be explained by natural internal climate variability alone. Model-estimated effects of changes in solar and volcanic forcing likewise do not explain the SWE/P reductions. The mean model estimate is that about half of the SWE/P reductions observed in the west from 1950 to 1999 are the result of climate changes forced by anthropogenic greenhouse gases, ozone, and aerosols.

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David W. Pierce, Daniel R. Cayan, Tapash Das, Edwin P. Maurer, Norman L. Miller, Yan Bao, M. Kanamitsu, Kei Yoshimura, Mark A. Snyder, Lisa C. Sloan, Guido Franco, and Mary Tyree

Abstract

Climate model simulations disagree on whether future precipitation will increase or decrease over California, which has impeded efforts to anticipate and adapt to human-induced climate change. This disagreement is explored in terms of daily precipitation frequency and intensity. It is found that divergent model projections of changes in the incidence of rare heavy (>60 mm day−1) daily precipitation events explain much of the model disagreement on annual time scales, yet represent only 0.3% of precipitating days and 9% of annual precipitation volume. Of the 25 downscaled model projections examined here, 21 agree that precipitation frequency will decrease by the 2060s, with a mean reduction of 6–14 days yr−1. This reduces California's mean annual precipitation by about 5.7%. Partly offsetting this, 16 of the 25 projections agree that daily precipitation intensity will increase, which accounts for a model average 5.3% increase in annual precipitation. Between these conflicting tendencies, 12 projections show drier annual conditions by the 2060s and 13 show wetter. These results are obtained from 16 global general circulation models downscaled with different combinations of dynamical methods [Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF), Regional Spectral Model (RSM), and version 3 of the Regional Climate Model (RegCM3)] and statistical methods [bias correction with spatial disaggregation (BCSD) and bias correction with constructed analogs (BCCA)], although not all downscaling methods were applied to each global model. Model disagreements in the projected change in occurrence of the heaviest precipitation days (>60 mm day−1) account for the majority of disagreement in the projected change in annual precipitation, and occur preferentially over the Sierra Nevada and Northern California. When such events are excluded, nearly twice as many projections show drier future conditions.

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