, Volume 111, Issue 3-4, pp 705-721
Date: 12 Jul 2011

Long-term changes in annual maximum snow depth and snowfall in Switzerland based on extreme value statistics

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Abstract

Mountain snow cover is an important source of water and essential for winter tourism in Alpine countries. However, large amounts of snow can lead to destructive avalanches, floods, traffic interruptions or even the collapse of buildings. We use annual maximum snow depth and snowfall data from 25 stations (between 200 and 2,500 m) collected during the last 80 winters (1930/31 to 2009/2010) to highlight temporal trends of annual maximum snow depth and 3-day snowfall sum. The generalized extreme value (GEV) distribution with time as a covariate is used to assess such trends. It allows us in particular to infer how return levels and return periods have been modified during the last 80 years. All the stations, even the highest one, show a decrease in extreme snow depth, which is mainly significant at low altitudes (below 800 m). A negative trend is also observed for extreme snowfalls at low and high altitudes but the pattern at mid-altitudes (between 800 and 1,500 m) is less clear. The decreasing trend of extreme snow depth and snowfall at low altitudes seems to be mainly caused by a reduction in the magnitude of the extremes rather than the scale (variability) of the extremes. This may be caused by the observed decrease in the snow/rain ratio due to increasing air temperatures. In contrast, the decreasing trend in extreme snow depth above 1,500 m is caused by a reduction in the scale (variability) of the extremes and not by a reduction in the magnitude of the extremes. However, the decreasing trends are significant for only about half of the stations and can only be seen as an indication that climate change may be already impacting extreme snow depth and extreme snowfall.