Natural Variability Has Slowed the Decline in Western US Snowpack Since the 1980s
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Natural Variability Has Slowed the Decline in Western US Snowpack Since the 1980s

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  • Journal Title:
    Geophysical Research Letters
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  • Description:
    Spring snowpack in the mountains of the western United States has not declined substantially since the 1980s, despite significant global and regional warming. Here we show that this apparent insensitivity of snowpack to warming is a result of changes in the atmospheric circulation over the western United States, which have reduced snowpack losses due to warming. Climate model simulations indicate that the observed circulation changes have been driven in part by a shift in Pacific sea surface temperatures that is attributable to natural variability, and not part of the simulated response to anthropogenic forcing. Removing the influence of natural variability reveals a robust anthropogenic decline in western U.S. snowpack since the 1980s, particularly during the early months of the accumulation season (October-November). These results suggest that the recent stability of western U.S. snowpack will be followed by a period of accelerated decline once the current mode of natural variability subsides. Plain Language Summary Melting snowpack is a vital source of water in the western United States during the summer, when rainfall is usually scarce. Although the amount of water contained in the snowpack has declined over the past century, it has been surprisingly stable since the 1980s, despite 1 degrees C of warming over the same period. At first glance, this result might appear to indicate that the snowpack is quite resilient to warming. However, here we show that the contribution of global warming to western U.S. snowpack loss has in reality been large and widespread since the 1980s, but mostly offset by natural variability in the climate system. This result points to a faster rate of snowpack loss in coming decades, when the impact of global warming is more likely to be amplified, rather than offset, by natural variability.
  • Source:
    Geophysical Research Letters, 46(1), 346-355.
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