Shorter snow cover duration since 1970 in the Swiss Alps due to earlier snowmelt more than to later snow onset

Abstract

Global warming has strong impacts on snow cover, which in turn affects ecosystems, hydrological regimes and winter tourism. Only a few long-term snow series are available worldwide, especially at high elevation. Here, we analyzed several snowpack characteristics over the period 1970–2015 at eleven meteorological stations, spanning elevations from 1139 to 2540 m asl in the Swiss Alps. Snow cover duration has significantly shortened at all sites, on average by 8.9 days decade−1. This shortening was largely driven by earlier snowmelt (on average 5.8 days decade−1) and partly by later snow onset but the latter was significant in only ~30 % of the stations. On average, the snow season now starts 12 days later and ends 26 days earlier than in 1970. Overall, the annual maximum snow depth has declined from 3.9 to 10.6 % decade−1 and was reached 7.8 ± 0.4 to 12.0 ± 0.4 days decade−1 earlier, though these trends hide a high inter-annual and decadal variability. The number of days with snow on the ground has also significantly decreased at all elevations, in all regions and for all thresholds from 1 to 100 cm. Overall, our results demonstrate a marked decline in all snowpack parameters, irrespective of elevation and region, and whether for drier or wetter locations, with a pronounced shift of the snowmelt in spring, in connection with reinforced warming during this season.

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant number 200021-152954). We are grateful to MeteoSwiss for providing the snow data, to Stephan Bader and Gergely Rigo for their help concerning the snow stations’ metadata, to Christophe Randin for his help with data analysis and to William Doehler for his editorial improvements of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Geoffrey Klein.

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Klein, G., Vitasse, Y., Rixen, C. et al. Shorter snow cover duration since 1970 in the Swiss Alps due to earlier snowmelt more than to later snow onset. Climatic Change 139, 637–649 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-016-1806-y

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Keywords

  • Snow Cover
  • Snow Depth
  • Sunshine Duration
  • Snow Season
  • Early Snowmelt