, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp 73-88
Date: 06 Feb 2007

The role of terrestrial snow cover in the climate system

Abstract

Snow cover is known to exert a strong influence on climate, but quantifying its impact is difficult. This study investigates the global impact of terrestrial snow cover through a pair of GCM simulations run with prognostic snow cover and with all snow cover on land eliminated (NOSNOWCOVER). In this experiment all snowfall over land was converted into its liquid–water equivalent upon reaching the surface. Compared with the control run, NOSNOWCOVER produces mean-annual surface air temperatures up to 5 K higher over northern North America and Eurasia and 8–10 K greater during winter. The globally averaged warming of 0.8 K is one-third as large as the model’s response to 2 × CO2 forcing. The pronounced surface heating propagates throughout the troposphere, causing changes in surface and upper-air circulation patterns. Despite the large atmospheric warming, the absence of an insulating snow pack causes soil temperatures in NOSNOWCOVER to fall throughout northern Asia and Canada, including extreme wintertime cooling of over 20 K in Siberia and a 70% increase in permafrost area. The absence of snow melt water also affects extratropical surface hydrology, causing significantly drier upper-layer soils and dramatic changes in the annual cycle of runoff. Removing snow cover also drastically affects extreme weather. Extreme cold-air outbreaks (CAOs)—defined relative to the control climatology—essentially disappear in NOSNOWCOVER. The loss of CAOs appears to stem from both the local effects of eliminating snow cover in mid-latitudes and a remote effect over source regions in the Arctic, where −40°C air masses are no longer able to form.