, Volume 41, Issue 3-4, pp 735-754

Alpine snow cover in a changing climate: a regional climate model perspective

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Abstract

An analysis is presented of an ensemble of regional climate model (RCM) experiments from the ENSEMBLES project in terms of mean winter snow water equivalent (SWE), the seasonal evolution of snow cover, and the duration of the continuous snow cover season in the European Alps. Two sets of simulations are considered, one driven by GCMs assuming the SRES A1B greenhouse gas scenario for the period 1951–2099, and the other by the ERA-40 reanalysis for the recent past. The simulated SWE for Switzerland for the winters 1971–2000 is validated against an observational data set derived from daily snow depth measurements. Model validation shows that the RCMs are capable of simulating the general spatial and seasonal variability of Alpine snow cover, but generally underestimate snow at elevations below 1,000 m and overestimate snow above 1,500 m. Model biases in snow cover can partly be related to biases in the atmospheric forcing. The analysis of climate projections for the twenty first century reveals high inter-model agreement on the following points: The strongest relative reduction in winter mean SWE is found below 1,500 m, amounting to 40–80 % by mid century relative to 1971–2000 and depending upon the model considered. At these elevations, mean winter temperatures are close to the melting point. At higher elevations the decrease of mean winter SWE is less pronounced but still a robust feature. For instance, at elevations of 2,000–2,500 m, SWE reductions amount to 10–60 % by mid century and to 30–80 % by the end of the century. The duration of the continuous snow cover season shows an asymmetric reduction with strongest shortening in springtime when ablation is the dominant factor for changes in SWE. We also find a substantial ensemble-mean reduction of snow reliability relevant to winter tourism at elevations below about 1,800 m by mid century, and at elevations below about 2,000 m by the end of the century.