Projecting 21st century snowpack trends in western USA mountains using variable-resolution CESM

Alan M. Rhoades, Paul A. Ullrich, Colin M. Zarzycki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


Climate change will impact western USA water supplies by shifting precipitation from snow to rain and driving snowmelt earlier in the season. However, changes at the regional-to-mountain scale is still a major topic of interest. This study addresses the impacts of climate change on mountain snowpack by assessing historical and projected variable-resolution (VR) climate simulations in the community earth system model (VR-CESM) forced by prescribed sea-surface temperatures along with widely used regional downscaling techniques, the coupled model intercomparison projects phase 5 bias corrected and statistically downscaled (CMIP5-BCSD) and the North American regional climate change assessment program (NARCCAP). The multi-model RCP8.5 scenario analysis of winter season SWE for western USA mountains indicates by 2040-2065 mean SWE could decrease −19% (NARCCAP) to −38% (VR-CESM), with an ensemble median change of −27%. Contrary to CMIP5-BCSD and NARCCAP, VR-CESM highlights a more pessimistic outcome for western USA mountain snowpack in latter-parts of the 21st century. This is related to temperature changes altering the snow-albedo feedback, snowpack storage, and precipitation phase, but may indicate that VR-CESM resolves more physically consistent elevational effects lacking in statistically downscaled datasets and teleconnections that are not captured in limited area models. Overall, VR-CESM projects by 2075–2100 that average western USA mountain snowfall decreases by −30%, snow cover by −44%, SWE by −69%, and average surface temperature increase of +5.0 C. This places pressure on western USA states to preemptively invest in climate adaptation measures such as alternative water storage, water use efficiency, and reassess reservoir storage operations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)261-288
Number of pages28
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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