Climate Dynamics

, Volume 50, Issue 1–2, pp 261–288 | Cite as

Projecting 21st century snowpack trends in western USA mountains using variable-resolution CESM

  • Alan M. Rhoades
  • Paul A. Ullrich
  • Colin M. Zarzycki


Climate change will impact western USA water supplies by shifting precipitation from snow to rain and driving snowmelt earlier in the season. However, changes at the regional-to-mountain scale is still a major topic of interest. This study addresses the impacts of climate change on mountain snowpack by assessing historical and projected variable-resolution (VR) climate simulations in the community earth system model (VR-CESM) forced by prescribed sea-surface temperatures along with widely used regional downscaling techniques, the coupled model intercomparison projects phase 5 bias corrected and statistically downscaled (CMIP5-BCSD) and the North American regional climate change assessment program (NARCCAP). The multi-model RCP8.5 scenario analysis of winter season SWE for western USA mountains indicates by 2040-2065 mean SWE could decrease −19% (NARCCAP) to −38% (VR-CESM), with an ensemble median change of −27%. Contrary to CMIP5-BCSD and NARCCAP, VR-CESM highlights a more pessimistic outcome for western USA mountain snowpack in latter-parts of the 21st century. This is related to temperature changes altering the snow-albedo feedback, snowpack storage, and precipitation phase, but may indicate that VR-CESM resolves more physically consistent elevational effects lacking in statistically downscaled datasets and teleconnections that are not captured in limited area models. Overall, VR-CESM projects by 2075–2100 that average western USA mountain snowfall decreases by −30%, snow cover by −44%, SWE by −69%, and average surface temperature increase of +5.0 \(^\circ\)C. This places pressure on western USA states to preemptively invest in climate adaptation measures such as alternative water storage, water use efficiency, and reassess reservoir storage operations.


Climate change Western USA Mountain snowpack Regional climate modeling Variable-resolution climate modeling Elevation-dependent warming 



The authors would like to acknowledge Cecile Hannay for her help in ensuring that our RCP8.5 configuration within CESM was consistent with NCAR standards. We would also like to acknowledge the computational support, and patience, provided by the University of California, Davis Farm Cluster IT support team (i.e., Bill Broadley and Terri Knight). Further, we would like to thank our various research sponsors including: the National Science Foundation (NSF) via the Climate Change, Water, and Society Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program at the University of California, Davis (NSF Award Number: 1069333), the Leland Roy Saxon and Georgia Wood Saxon Fellowship, the “Multiscale Methods for Accurate, Efficient, and Scale-aware Models of the Earth System” within the Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research of the U.S. Department of Energy Earth System Modeling Program (ESM) under Contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231. Support also comes from the California Agricultural Experiment Station (project CA-D-LAW-2203-H).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources (LAWR)University of California, DavisDavisUSA
  2. 2.National Center for Atmospheric ResearchBoulderUSA

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