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Jessica D. Lundquist, Justin R. Minder, Paul J. Neiman, and Ellen Sukovich


The rate of precipitation increase with elevation, termed the orographic precipitation gradient (OPG), is critically important for hydrologic forecasting in mountain basins that receive both rain and snow. Here, the following are examined to see how well they are able to predict the OPG and how it changes between storms and years: 1) a linear model of orographic precipitation forced by upstream radiosonde data, 2) monthly Parameter-Elevation Regressions on Independent Slopes Model (PRISM) precipitation data, and 3) seven years of hourly wind profiler data used to identify characteristics of the Sierra barrier jet (SBJ). These are compared against 124 daily resolution (four of which also had quality controlled, hourly resolution) precipitation gauge records in the northern Sierra Nevada. All methods represent the OPG well in the mean and during a year when less than 30% of the precipitation occurred on days with SBJs. However, the linear model and PRISM do not adequately capture annual variations in the OPG during years when more than 70% of the precipitation occurred on days with SBJs. Throughout all of the years, wind profiler data indicating the height of the SBJ provided additional, and necessary, information. The OPG is negatively correlated with the height of the SBJ. The SBJ height is lower, and hence, the OPG greater when the westerly winds are stronger, with more vertical wind shear. These westerly storms result in greater increases of precipitation with elevation, which act to increase snow storage in most storms but also to increase storm runoff during warmer-than-average storms.

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