Letter

A precipitation shift from snow towards rain leads to a decrease in streamflow

  • Nature Climate Change volume 4, pages 583586 (2014)
  • doi:10.1038/nclimate2246
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Abstract

In a warming climate, precipitation is less likely to occur as snowfall1,2. A shift from a snow- towards a rain-dominated regime is currently assumed not to influence the mean streamflow significantly1,3,4,5. Contradicting the current paradigm, we argue that mean streamflow is likely to reduce for catchments that experience significant reductions in the fraction of precipitation falling as snow. With more than one-sixth of the Earth’s population depending on meltwater for their water supply3 and ecosystems that can be sensitive to streamflow alterations6, the socio-economic consequences of a reduction in streamflow can be substantial. By applying the Budyko water balance framework7 to catchments located throughout the contiguous United States we demonstrate that a higher fraction of precipitation falling as snow is associated with higher mean streamflow, compared to catchments with marginal or no snowfall. Furthermore, we show that the fraction of each year’s precipitation falling as snowfall has a significant influence on the annual streamflow within individual catchments. This study is limited to introducing these observations; process-based understanding at the catchment scale is not yet provided. Given the importance of streamflow for society, further studies are required to respond to the consequences of a temperature-induced precipitation shift from snow to rain.

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Acknowledgements

M. Durcik of SAHRA (University of Arizona) provided the version of the MOPEX datset used in this study.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Water Resources Section, Delft University of Technology, Delft, 2628 CN, The Netherlands

    • W. R. Berghuijs
    •  & M. Hrachowitz
  2. Department of Civil Engineering, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TR, UK

    • W. R. Berghuijs
    •  & R. A. Woods

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Contributions

W.R.B. and R.A.W. designed the study; W.R.B. conducted all the analyses; all authors contributed to interpretations and writing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to W. R. Berghuijs.

Supplementary information