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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Decline in Seasonal Snow during a Projected 20-Year Dry Spell


Snowpack loss in midlatitude mountains is ubiquitously projected by Earth system models, though the magnitudes, persistence, and time horizons of decline vary. Using daily downscaled hydroclimate and snow projections, we examine changes in snow seasonality across the U.S. Pacific Southwest region during a simulated severe 20-year dry spell in the 21st century (2051–2070) developed as part of the 4th California Climate Change Assessment to provide a “stress test” for water resources. Across California’s mountains, substantial declines (30–100% loss) in median peak annual snow water equivalent accompany changes in snow seasonality throughout the region compared to the historic period. We find that 80% of historic seasonal snowpacks transition to ephemeral conditions. Subsetting empirical-statistical wildfire projections for California by snow seasonality transition regions indicates a two-to-four-fold increase in the area burned, consistent with recent observations of high elevation wildfires following extended drought conditions. By analyzing six of the major California snow-fed river systems, we demonstrate snowpack reductions and seasonality transitions result in concomitant declines in annual runoff (47–58% of historical values). The negative impacts to statewide water supply reliability by the projected dry spell will likely be magnified by changes in snowpack seasonality and increased wildfire activity.

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