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The Changing Character of the California Sierra Nevada as a Natural Reservoir


The mountains of the Western United States provide a vital natural service through the storage and release of mountain snowpack, lessening impacts of seasonal aridity and satiating summer water demand. However, climate change continues to undermine these important processes. To understand how snowpack may change in the headwaters of California's major reservoirs, the North American Coordinated Regional Climate Downscaling Experiment is analyzed to assess peak water volume, peak timing, accumulation rate, melt rate, and snow season length across both latitudinal and elevational gradients. Under a high-emissions scenario, end-of-century peak snowpack timing occurs 4 weeks earlier and peak water volume is 79.3% lower. The largest reductions are above Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom and between 0- and 2,000-m elevations. Regional climate model and global forcing data set choice is important in determining historical snowpack character, yet by end century all models show a significant and similar decline in mountain snowpack.

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