A low-to-no snow future and its impacts on water resources in the western United States

Erica R. Siirila-Woodburn, Alan M. Rhoades, Benjamin J. Hatchett, Laurie S. Huning, Julia Szinai, Christina Tague, Peter S. Nico, Daniel R. Feldman, Andrew D. Jones, William D. Collins & Laurna Kaatz 

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00219-y

Abstract: Anthropogenic climate change is decreasing seasonal snowpacks globally, with potentially catastrophic consequences on water resources, given the long-held reliance on snowpack in water management. In this Review, we examine the changes and trickle-down impacts of snow loss in the western United States (WUS). Across the WUS, snow water equivalent declines of ~25% are expected by 2050, with losses comparable with contemporary historical trends. There is less consensus on the time horizon of snow disappearance, but model projections combined with a new low-to-no snow definition suggest ~35–60 years before low-to-no snow becomes persistent if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. Diminished and more ephemeral snowpacks that melt earlier will alter groundwater and streamflow dynamics. The direction of these changes are difficult to constrain given competing factors such as higher evapotranspiration, altered vegetation composition and changes in wildfire behaviour in a warmer world. These changes undermine conventional WUS water management practices, but through proactive implementation of soft and hard adaptation strategies, there is potential to build resilience to extreme, episodic and, eventually, persistent low-to-no snow conditions. Federal investments offer a timely opportunity to address these vulnerabilities, but they require a concerted portfolio of activities that cross historically siloed physical and disciplinary boundaries.

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