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Projecting 21st century snowpack trends in western USA mountains using variable-resolution CESM


Climate change will impact western USA water supplies by shifting precipitation from snow to rain and driving snowmelt earlier in the season. However, changes at the regional-to-mountain scale is still a major topic of interest. This study addresses the impacts of climate change on mountain snowpack by assessing historical and projected variable-resolution (VR) climate simulations in the community earth system model (VR-CESM) forced by prescribed sea-surface temperatures along with widely used regional downscaling techniques, the coupled model intercomparison projects phase 5 bias corrected and statistically downscaled (CMIP5-BCSD) and the North American regional climate change assessment program (NARCCAP). The multi-model RCP8.5 scenario analysis of winter season SWE for western USA mountains indicates by 2040-2065 mean SWE could decrease −19% (NARCCAP) to −38% (VR-CESM), with an ensemble median change of −27%. Contrary to CMIP5-BCSD and NARCCAP, VR-CESM highlights a more pessimistic outcome for western USA mountain snowpack in latter-parts of the 21st century. This is related to temperature changes altering the snow-albedo feedback, snowpack storage, and precipitation phase, but may indicate that VR-CESM resolves more physically consistent elevational effects lacking in statistically downscaled datasets and teleconnections that are not captured in limited area models. Overall, VR-CESM projects by 2075–2100 that average western USA mountain snowfall decreases by −30%, snow cover by −44%, SWE by −69%, and average surface temperature increase of +5.0 ∘C. This places pressure on western USA states to preemptively invest in climate adaptation measures such as alternative water storage, water use efficiency, and reassess reservoir storage operations.

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