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Slower snowmelt in a warmer world


There is general consensus that projected warming will cause earlier snowmelt, but how snowmelt rates will respond to climate change is poorly known. We present snowpack observations from western North America illustrating that shallower snowpack melts earlier, and at lower rates, than deeper, later-lying snow-cover. The observations provide the context for a hypothesis of slower snowmelt in a warmer world. We test this hypothesis using climate model simulations for both a control time period and re-run with a future climate scenario, and find that the fraction of meltwater volume produced at high snowmelt rates is greatly reduced in a warmer climate. The reduction is caused by a contraction of the snowmelt season to a time of lower available energy, reducing by as much as 64% the snow-covered area exposed to energy sufficient to drive high snowmelt rates. These results have unresolved implications on soil moisture deficits, vegetation stress, and streamflow declines.

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Figure 1: Observations and model simulations of snow water equivalent (SWE) across western North America, for the period October 2000 until September 2010, demonstrate lower ablation rates in places with less SWE.
Figure 2: Reductions in total meltwater volume are primarily associated with reductions in high melt rates.
Figure 3: Changes in the percentage of meltwater volume produced at different melt rates.
Figure 4: Large reductions in high melt rates are projected to occur predominantly in regions characterized as having historically deeper snowpack where melt persisted late into the spring and early summer and slight general increases in lower melt rates in winter and early spring.
Figure 5: In a warmer world, less than half of the historical snow-covered area is exposed to net energy >10 MJ m−2 d−1—a threshold that approximately divides moderate and high melt rates from lower rates typical of winter and early spring.


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The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. K.N.M. was supported under an NCAR Advanced Study Program (ASP) Postdoctoral Fellowship. We acknowledge high-performance computing support from Yellowstone (ark:/85065/d7wd3xhc) provided by NCAR’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. We thank N. Addor for thoughtful discussion and M. Barlage for his critical effort to improve the snow simulations.

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K.N.M. and M.P.C. designed the study; K.N.M. conducted all analyses; C.L. ran the WRF simulations; K.I. managed the WRF output; K.N.M., M.P.C. and R.R. contributed to the interpretations of the results; and K.N.M. and M.P.C. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Keith N. Musselman.

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Musselman, K., Clark, M., Liu, C. et al. Slower snowmelt in a warmer world. Nature Clim Change 7, 214–219 (2017).

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