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Illuminating snow droughts: The future of Western United States snowpack in the SPEAR large ensemble
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  • Julian Francis Schmitt,
  • Kai-Chih Tseng,
  • Mimi Hughes,
  • Nathaniel Johnson
Julian Francis Schmitt
California Institute of Technology

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Kai-Chih Tseng
National Taiwan University
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Mimi Hughes
NOAA Physical Sciences Laboratory
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Nathaniel Johnson
Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System
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Seasonal snowpack in the Western United States (WUS) is vital for meeting summer hydrological demands, reducing the intensity and frequency of wildfires, and supporting snow-tourism economies. While the frequency and severity of snow droughts (SD) are expected to increase under continued global warming, the uncertainty from internal climate variability remains challenging to quantify. Using a 30-member large ensemble from a state-of-the-art global climate model, the Seamless System for Prediction and EArth System Research (SPEAR), and an observations-based dataset, we find WUS SD changes are already significant. By 2100, SPEAR projects SDs to be nearly 9 times more frequent under shared socioeconomic pathway 5-8.5 (SSP5-8.5) and 5 times more frequent under SSP2-4.5. By investigating the influence of the two primary drivers of SD, temperature and precipitation amount, we find the average WUS SD will become warmer and wetter. To assess how these changes affect future summer water availability, we track April 15th snowpack across WUS watersheds, finding differences in the onset time of a “no-snow” threshold between regions and large internal variability within the ensemble that are both on the order of decades. For example, under SSP5-8.5, SPEAR projects California could experience no-snow anywhere between 2058 and 2096, while in the Pacific Northwest, the earliest transition happens in 2091. We attribute the inter-regional uncertainty to differences in the regions’ mean winter temperature and the intra-regional uncertainty to irreducible internal climate variability. This analysis indicates that internal climate variability will remain a significant source of uncertainty for WUS hydrology through 2100.
04 Aug 2023Submitted to ESS Open Archive
07 Aug 2023Published in ESS Open Archive