Climate Dynamics

, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp 73–88 | Cite as

The role of terrestrial snow cover in the climate system



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.



This project is supported by collaborative National Science Foundation grants ATM-0332099, ATM-0332081, and OPP-0327664. Constructive input from and collaboration with John Walsh, Diane Portis, and Bill Chapman on extreme cold air outbreaks were valuable in strengthening the manuscript. Suggestions by Michael Notaro on the overall content were also very helpful in improving the paper. Sam Levis was instrumental in assisting on the coding changes within the CCSM land component model.


  1. ACIA (2005) Arctic climate impact assessment: scientific report. Cambridge University Press, 1042 ppGoogle Scholar
  2. Baker DG, Ruschy DL, Skaggs RH, Wall DB (1992) Air temperature and radiation depressions associated with a snow cover. J Appl Meteor 31:247–254CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barnett TP, Dumenil L, Schlese U, Roeckner E (1988) The effect of Eurasian snow cover on global climate. Science 239:504–507CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barnett TP, Adam JC, Lettenmaier DP (2005) Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions. Nature 438:303–309CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blackmon ML, Madden RA, Wallace JM, Gutzler DS (1979) Geographical variations in the vertical structure of geopotential height fluctuations. J Atmos Sci 36:2450–2466CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Blanford HF (1884) On the connexion of Himalayan snowfall and seasons of drought in India. Proc Roy Soc Lond 37:3–22Google Scholar
  7. Bonan GB, Levis S (2005) Evaluating aspects of the community land and atmosphere models (CLM3 and CAM) using a dynamic global vegetation model. J Clim 19:2290–2301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bromwich DH, Chen B, Hines KM (1998) Global atmospheric impacts induced by year—round open water adjacent to Antarctica. J Geophys Res 103:11173–11189CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brown RD (2000) Northern Hemisphere snow cover variability and change, 1915–1997. J Clim 13:2339–2355CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Campbell JL, Mitchell MJ, Groffman PM, Christenson LM, Hardy JP (2005) Winter in northeastern North America: a critical period for ecological processes. Front Ecol Environ 3:314–322Google Scholar
  11. Clark MP, Serreze MC (2000) Effects of variations in East Asian snow cover on modulating atmospheric circulation over the North Pacific Ocean. J Clim 13:3700–3710CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cohen J, Entekhabi D (1999) Eurasian snow cover variability and Northern Hemisphere climate predictability. Geophys Res Lett 26:345–348CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cohen J, Entekhabi D (2001) The influence of snow cover on Northern Hemisphere climate variability. Atmos-Ocean 39:35–53Google Scholar
  14. Cohen J, Rind D (1991) The effect of snow cover on the climate. J Clim 4:689–706CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cohen J, Saito K (2003) Eurasian snow cover, more skillful in predicting U. S. winter climate than the NAO/AO? Geophys Res Lett 30. doi: 10.1029/2003GL018053
  16. Collins WD, Bitz CM, Blackmon ML, Bonan GB, Bretherton CS, Carton JA, Chang P, Doney SC, Hack JJ, Henderson TB, Kiehl JT, Large WG, McKenna DS, Santer BD, Smith RD (2005) The community climate system model: CCSM3. J Clim 19:2122–2143CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dallavalle JP, Bosart L (1975) A synoptic investigation of anticyclogenesis accompanying North American polar outbreaks. Mon Weather Rev 103:941–957CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Decker KL, Wang MD, Waite C, Sherbatskoy T (2003) Snow removal and ambient temperature effects of forest soil temperatures in northern Vermont. Soil Sci Soc Am J 67:1234–1242CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dery SJ, Wood EF (2006) Analysis of snow in the 20th and 21st century GFDL coupled climate model simulations. J Geophys Res (in press)Google Scholar
  20. Dewey KF (1977) Daily maximum and minimum temperature forecasts and the influence of snow cover. Mon Weather Rev 105:1594–1597CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dickinson RE, Oleson KW, Bonan G, Hoffman F, Thornton P, Vertenstein M, Yang Z-L, Zeng X (2006) The Community Land Model and its climate statistics as a component of the Community Climate System Model. J Clim 19:2302–2324CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fletcher JO, Mintz Y, Arakawa A, Fox T (1973) Numerical simulation of the influence of Arctic sea ice on climate. In: Energy fluxes over polar surfaces. Proceedings of the IAMAP/IAPSO/SCAR/ WMO Symposium, Moscow, 3–5 August 1971. (Tech. Note No.129, WMO-No. 361) World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, pp 181–218Google Scholar
  23. Foley JA, Kutzbach JE, Coe MT, Levis S (1994) Feedbacks between climate and boreal forests during the Holocene epoch. Nature 371:6492–6496CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Foster J, Owe M, Rango A (1983) Snow cover and temperature relationships in North America and Eurasia. J Appl Meteor 22:460–469CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Frei A, Gong G (2005) Decadal to century scale trends in North American snow extent in coupled atmosphere–ocean general circulation models. Geophys Res Lett 32:L18502. doi: 10.1029/2005/GL023394 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Frei A, Miller JA, Robinson DA (2003) Improved simulations of snow extent in the second phase of the Atmospheric Model Intercomparison Project (AMIP-2). J Geophys Res 108(D12):4369. doi: 10.1029/2002JD003030 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gallimore RG, Kutzbach JE (1996) Role of orbitally induced changes in tundra area in the onset of glaciation. Nature 381:503–505CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gong G, Entekhabi D, Cohen J (2003a) Modeled northern hemisphere winter climate response to realistic Siberian snow anomalies. J Clim 16:3917–3931CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gong G, Entekhabi D, Cohen J (2003b) Relative impacts of Siberian and North American snow anomalies on the Northern Hemisphere mode. Geophys Res Lett 30:1848–1851. doi: 10.1029/2003GL017749 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gong G, Entekhabi D, Cohen J, Robinson D (2004) Sensitivity of atmospheric response to modeled snow anomaly characteristics. J Geophys Res 109:D06107. doi: 10.1029/2003JD004160 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gregory JM, Ingram WJ, Palmer MA, Jones GS, Stott PA, Thorpe RB, Lowe JA, Johns TC, Williams KD (2004) A new method for diagnosing radiative forcing and climate sensitivity. Geophys Res Lett 31:03205. doi: 10.1029/2003GL018747 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Groffman PM, Driscoll CT, Fahey TJ, Hardy JP, Fitzhugh RD, Tierney GL (2001) Colder soils in a warmer world: a snow manipulation study in a northern hardwood forest ecosystem. Biogeochem 56:135–150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Groisman PY, Karl TR, Knight RW (1994) Observed impact of snow cover on the heat balance and the rise of continental spring temperatures. Science 263:198–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hall A (2004) The role of surface albedo feedback in climate. J Clim 17:1550–1568CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hegerl GC, Zweiers F, Kharin S, Stott P (2004) Detectability of anthropogenic changes in temperature and precipitation extremes. J Clim 17:3683–3700CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. IPCC (2001) Climate Change 2001: The scientific basis. Contribution of working group I to the third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. WMO/UNEP. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 944 ppGoogle Scholar
  37. Kiehl JT, Shields CA, Hack JJ, Collins WD (2006) The climate sensitivity of the Community Climate System Model Version 3 (CCSM3). J Clim 19:2584–2596CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Klein WH (1983) Objective specification of monthly mean surface temperatures in the United States during the winter season. Mon Wea Rev 111:674–691CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Klein WH (1985) Space and time variations in specifying monthly mean surface temperature from the 700 mb height field. Mon Wea Rev 113:277–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Klein WH, Walsh JE (1983) A comparison of pointwise screening and empirical orthogonal functions in specifying monthly mean surface temperature from 700 mb data. Mon Wea Rev 111:669–673CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Konrad CE (1998) Persistent planetary scale circulation patterns and their relationship with cold air outbreak activity over the eastern United States. In J Clim 18:1209–1221CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kumar A, Yang F (2003) Comparative influence of snow and SST variability on extratropical climate in northern winter. J Clim 16:2248–2261CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lamb HH (1977) Climate. Present, past, and future: climatic history and future, vol 2. William Clowers & Sons, Ltd., London, 835 ppGoogle Scholar
  44. Levis S, Foley JA, Pollard D (1999) Potential high-latitude vegetation feedbacks on CO2-induced climate change. Geophys Res Lett 26:747–750CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lydolf PE (1977) Climates of the Soviet Union. Elsevier, Amsterdam, 443 ppGoogle Scholar
  46. Maykut GA, Untersteiner N (1971) Some results from a time dependent thermodynamic model of sea ice. J Geophys Res 76:1550–1575CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Meehl GA, Arblaster JM, Tebaldi C (2005) Understanding future patterns of increased precipitation intensity in climate model simulations. Geophys Res Lett 32:L18719. doi: 10.1029/2005GL023680 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Mölders N, Walsh JE (2004) Atmospheric response to soil-frost and snow in Alaska in March. Theor Appl Clim 77:77–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Mote PW, Hamlet AF, Clark MP, Lettenmaier DP (2005) Declining mountain snowpack in western North America. Bull Am Met Soc 86:39–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Namias J (1962) Influences of abnormal heat sources and sinks on atmospheric behavior. In: Proceedings of international symposium on numerical weather prediction. Tokyo, Meteor. Soc. Japan, pp 615–627Google Scholar
  51. Namias J (1985) Some empirical evidence for the influence of snow cover on temperature and precipitation. Mon Wea Rev 113:1542–1553CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Oleson KW, Dai Y, Bonan G, Bosilovich M, Dickinson R, Dirmeyer P, Hoffman F, Houser P, Levis S, Niu GY, Thornton G, Vertenstein M, Yang ZL, Zeng X (2004) Technical description of the Community Land Model (CLM). NCAR Technical Note, NCAR/TN-461 + STR. National Center for Atmospheric Research, BoulderGoogle Scholar
  53. Panagiotopoulos F, Shahgedanova M, Hannachi A, Stephenson DB (2005) Observed trends and teleconnections of the Siberian High: a recently declining center of action. J Clim 18:1411–1422CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Putkonen JK, Roe G (2003) Rain-on-snow events impact soil temperatures and affect ungulate survival. Geophys Res Lett 30. doi: 10.1029/2002GL016326
  55. Renssen H, Goose H, Fifechet T (2003) On the non-linear response of the ocean thrmohaline circulation to global deforestation. Geophys Res Lett 30:1061. doi: 10.1029/2002GL016155 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Royer JF, Planton S, Deque M (1990) A sensitivity experiment for the removal of Arctic sea ice with the French spectral general circulation model. Clim Dyn 5:1–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Saito K, Cohen J, Entekhabi D (2001) Evolution of atmospheric response to early season Eurasian snow cover anomalies. Mon Wea Rev 129:2746–2760CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Simmonds I, Budd WF (1991) Sensitivity of the southern hemisphere circulation to leads in the Antarctic pack ice. Q J Roy Met Soc 117:1003–1024CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Steiglitz M, Dery SJ, Romanovsky VE, Osterkamp TE (2003) The role of snow cover in the warming of Arctic permafrost. Geophys Res Lett 30. doi: 10.1029/2003GL017337
  60. Stewart IT, Cayan DR, Dettinger MD (2005) Changes toward earlier streamflow timing across western North America. J Clim 18:1136–1155CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Tatatsuki S, Suzuki K, Suzuki I (1994) A mass-mortality of Sika deer on Kinkazan Island, northern Japan. Ecol Res 9:215–223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Teng H, Washington WM, Meehl GA, Buja LE, Strand GW (2006) Twenty-first century Arctic climate change in the CCSM3 IPCC scenario simulations. Clim Dyn 26:601–616CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Vavrus S, Walsh JE, Chapman WL, D Portis (2006) The behavior of extreme cold-air outbreaks under greenhouse warming. In J Clim 26:1133–1147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Wagner AJ (1973) The influence of average snow depth on monthly mean temperature anomaly. Mon Wea Rev 101:624–626CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Walland DJ, Simmonds I (1997) Modelled atmospheric response to changes in Northern Hemisphere snow cover. Clim Dyn 13:25–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Watanabe M, Nitta T (1998) Relative impacts of snow and sea surface temperature anomalies on an extreme phase in the winter atmospheric circulation. J Clim 11:2837–2857CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Walsh JE, Ross B (1988) Sensitivity of 30 day dynamical forecasts to continental snow cover. J Clim 1:739–754CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Walsh JE, Tucek DR, Peterson MR (1982) Seasonal snow cover and short-term climatic fluctuations over the United States. Mon Wea Rev 110:1474–1485CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Walsh JE, Jasperson WH, Ross B (1985) Influences of snow cover and soil moisture on monthly air temperature. Mon Weather Rev 113:756–769CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Yasunari T, Kitoh A, Tokioka T (1991) Local and remote responses to excessive snow mass over Eurasia appearing in the northern spring and summer climate: a study with the MRI GCM. J Met Soc Jpn 69:473–487Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Climatic ResearchUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

Personalised recommendations