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Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions

Abstract

All currently available climate models predict a near-surface warming trend under the influence of rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In addition to the direct effects on climate—for example, on the frequency of heatwaves—this increase in surface temperatures has important consequences for the hydrological cycle, particularly in regions where water supply is currently dominated by melting snow or ice. In a warmer world, less winter precipitation falls as snow and the melting of winter snow occurs earlier in spring. Even without any changes in precipitation intensity, both of these effects lead to a shift in peak river runoff to winter and early spring, away from summer and autumn when demand is highest. Where storage capacities are not sufficient, much of the winter runoff will immediately be lost to the oceans. With more than one-sixth of the Earth's population relying on glaciers and seasonal snow packs for their water supply, the consequences of these hydrological changes for future water availability—predicted with high confidence and already diagnosed in some regions—are likely to be severe.

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Figure 1: Accumulated annual snowfall divided by annual runoff over the global land regions.
Figure 2: Trade-off between firm hydropower and stream-flow requirements.
Figure 3: Changes in the Qori Kalis Glacier, Quelccaya Ice Cap, Peru, between 1978 (a) and 2002 (b).

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Acknowledgements

This work is a contribution from IDAG, the International Detection and Attribution Group jointly supported by NOAA and DOE. The gross domestic product data set was developed by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University, New York, with funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This manuscript was improved considerably through the suggestions of D. Pierce and A. Gershunov.

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Correspondence to T. P. Barnett or D. P. Lettenmaier.

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Barnett, T., Adam, J. & Lettenmaier, D. Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions. Nature 438, 303–309 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04141

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