Climatic Change

, Volume 141, Issue 2, pp 287–299 | Cite as

Effects of climate change on snowpack and fire potential in the western USA

  • Diana R. Gergel
  • Bart NijssenEmail author
  • John T. Abatzoglou
  • Dennis P. Lettenmaier
  • Matt R. Stumbaugh


We evaluate the implications of ten twenty-first century climate scenarios for snow, soil moisture, and fuel moisture across the conterminous western USA using the Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) hydrology model. A decline in mountain snowpack, an advance in the timing of spring melt, and a reduction in snow season are projected for five mountain ranges in the region. For the southernmost range (the White Mountains), spring snow at most elevations will disappear by the end of the twenty-first century. We investigate soil and fuel moisture changes for the five mountain ranges and for six lowland regions. The accelerated depletion of mountain snowpack due to warming leads to reduced summer soil moisture across mountain environments. Similarly, warmer and drier summers lead to decreases of up to 25% in dead fuel moisture across all mountain ranges. Collective declines in spring mountain snowpack, summer soil moisture, and fuel moisture across western mountain ranges will increase fire potential in flammability-limited forested systems where fuels are not limiting. Projected changes in fire potential in predominately fuel-limited systems at lower elevations are more uncertain given the confounding signals between projected changes in soil moisture and fuel moisture.


Snow Water Equivalent Fire Potential Fuel Moisture Variable Infiltration Capacity Lowland Region 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This work was made possible in part through grant GS277A-B from the Northwest Climate Science Center to the University of Washington. The authors would like to thank Charles Luce, Anne Nolin, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments and insights.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Diana R. Gergel
    • 1
  • Bart Nijssen
    • 1
    Email author
  • John T. Abatzoglou
    • 2
  • Dennis P. Lettenmaier
    • 3
  • Matt R. Stumbaugh
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Civil and Environmental EngineeringUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Department of GeographyUniversity of IdahoMoscowUSA
  3. 3.Department of GeographyUniversity of California Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

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