, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 447-479

Climate change and snow-cover duration in the Australian Alps

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This study uses a model of snow-cover duration, an observed climate data set for the Australian alpine area, and a set of regional climate-change scenarios to assess quantitatively how changes in climate may affect snow cover in the Australian Alps. To begin, a regional interannual climate data set of high spatial resolution is prepared for input to the snow model and the resulting simulated interannual and spatial variations in snow-cover duration are assessed and compared with observations. The model provides a reasonable simulation of the sensitivities of snow-cover duration to changes in temperature and precipitation in the Australian Alps, although its performance is poorer at sites highly marginal for snow cover. (In a separate comparison, the model also performs well for sites in the European Alps.) The input climate data are then modified in line with scenarios of regional climate change based on the results of five global climate models run in enhanced greenhouse experiments. The scenarios are for the years 2030 and 2070 and allow for uncertainty associated with projecting future emissions of greenhouse gases and with estimating the sensitivity of the global climate system to enhanced greenhouse forcing. Attention focuses on the climate changes most favourable (‘best-case scenario’) and least favourable (‘worst-case scenario’) for snow cover amongst the range of climate changes in the scenarios. Under the best case scenario for 2030, simulated average snow-cover duration and the frequency of years of more than 60 days cover decline at all sites considered. However, at the higher sites (e.g., more than 1700 m) the effect is not very marked. For the worst case scenario, a much more dramatic decline in snow conditions is simulated. At higher sites, simulated average snow cover duration roughly halves by 2030 and approaches zero by 2070. At lower sites (around 1400 m), near zero average values are simulated by 2030 (compared to durations of around 60 days for current climate).

These simulated changes, ranging between the best and worst case, are likely to be indicative of how climate change will affect natural snow-cover duration in the Australian Alps. However, note that the model does not allow directly for changes in the frequency and intensity of snow-bearing circulation systems, nor do the climate-change scenarios allow possible changes in interannual variability (particularly that due to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation) and local topographical effects not resolved by global climate models. The simulated changes in snow cover are worthy of further consideration in terms of their implications for the ski industry and tourism, water resources and hydroelectric power, and land-use management and planning.

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