Skip to main content

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

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5

References

  • Abatzoglou JT, Brown TJ (2012) A comparison of statistical downscaling methods suited for wildfire applications. Intl J Clim 32:772–780. doi:10.1002/joc.2312

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Abatzoglou JT, Kolden CA (2013) Relationships between climate and macroscale area burned in the Western United States. Intl J Wildland Fire 22(7):1003–1020. doi:10.1071/WF13019

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Adam JC, Hamlet AF, Lettenmaier DP (2009) Implications of global climate change for snowmelt hydrology in the twenty-first century. Hydrol Process 23:962–972. doi:10.1002/hyp.7201

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barbero R, Abatzoglou JT, Larkin NK, Kolden CA, Stocks B (2015) Climate change presents increased potential for very large fires in the Contiguous United States. Intl J Wildland Fire. doi:10.1071/WF15083

    Google Scholar 

  • Barnett TP, Adam JC, Lettenmaier DP (2005) Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions. Nature 438:303–309. doi:10.1038/nature04141

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Behnke R, Vavrus S, Allstadt A, Albright T, Thogmartin WE, Radeloff VC (2016) Evaluation of downscaled, gridded climate data for the conterminous United States. Ecol Appl 26(5):1338–1351. doi:10.1002/15-1061

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • California Environmental Protection Agency, State Water Resources Control Board (2011) Lower San Joaquin River Committee Administrative Materials. Available at: http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/centralvalley/water_issues/salinity/lower_sanjoaquin_river_committee/administrative_materials/2011apr28/2011apr28_mtg_ag_item4_rsrc_dev.pdf

  • Cayan DR (1996) Interannual climate variability and snowpack in the Western United States. J Clim 9:928–948. doi:10.1175/1520-0442(1996)009<0928:ICVASI>2.0.CO;2

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen JD, Deeming DE (1985) The National Fire Danger Rating System: basic equations. USDA and Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station. Gen Tech Rep PSW-82.

  • Dennison PE, Brewer SC, Arnold JD, Moritz MA (2014) Large wildfire trends in the Western United States, 1984–2011. Geophys Res Lett 41:2928–2933. doi:10.1002/2014GL059576

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Flannigan MD, Logan KA, Amiro BD, Skinner WR, Stocks BJ (2005) Future area burned in Canada. Clim Chang 72:1–16. doi:10.1007/s10584-005-5935-y

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gutmann E, Pruitt T, Clark MP, Brekke L, Arnold JR, Raff DA, Rasmussen RM (2014) An intercomparison of statistical downscaling methods used for water resource assessments in the United States. Water Resour Res 50:7167–7186. doi:10.1002/2014WR015559

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hamlet AF, Mote PW, Clark MP, Lettenmaier DP (2005) Effects of temperature and precipitation variability on snowpack trends in the Western United States. J Clim 18:4545–4561. doi:10.1175/JCLI3538.1

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Higuera PE, Abatzoglou JT, Littell JS, Morgan P (2015) The changing strength and nature of fire-climate relationships in the Northern Rocky mountains, U.S.A., 1902–2008. PLoS One 10(6):e0127563. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127563

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kharin VV, Zwiers FW, Zhang X, Wehner M (2013) Changes in temperature and precipitation extremes in the CMIP5 ensemble. Clim Chang 119(2):345–357. doi:10.1007/s10584-013-0705-8

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kormos PR, Luce CH, Wenger SJ, Berghuijs WR (2016) Trends and sensitivities of low streamflow extremes to discharge timing and magnitude in Pacific Northwest mountain streams. Water Resour. Res 52. doi: 10.1002/2015WR018125

  • Liang X, Lettenmaier DP,  Wood EF, Burges SJ (1994) A simple hydrologically based model of land surface water and energy fluxes for general circulation models. J Geophys Res 99:14415–14428. doi:10.1029/94JD00483

  • Littell JS, Gwozdz R (2011) Climatic water balance and regional fire years in the Pacific Northwest, USA: linking regional climate and fire at landscape scales. Ecol Stud 213:117–139. doi:10.1029/94JD00483

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Littell JS, McKenzie D, Peterson DL, Westerling AL (2009) Climate and wildfire area burned in Western U.S. ecoprovinces, 1916–2003. Ecol Appl 19(4):1003–1021. doi:10.1890/07-1183.1

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Littell JS, Oneil EE, McKenzie D, Hicke JA, Lutz JA, Norheim RA, Elsner MM (2010) Forest ecosystems, disturbance, and climatic change in Washington State, USA. Clim Chang 102:129–158. doi:10.1007/s10584-010-9858-x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Littell JS, Peterson DL, Tjoelker M (2008) Douglas-fir growth in mountain ecosystems: water limits tree growth from stand to region. Ecological Monographs 78(3):349–368. doi:10.1890/07-0712.1

  • Livneh B, Rosenberg EA, Lin C, Nijssen B, Mishra V, Andreadis KM, Maurer EP, Lettenmaier DP (2013) A long-term hydrologically based dataset of land surface fluxes and states for the conterminous United States: update and extensions. J Clim 26:9384–9392. doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00508.1

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Luce CH (2016) Effects of climate change on snowpack, glaciers, and water resources in the Northern Rockies Region. In: Halofsky JE, Peterson DL, Dante-Wood SK, Hoang L, Ho JJ, Joyce LA (eds) Climate change vulnerability and adaptation in the Northern Rocky Mountains, Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-xxx. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins

    Google Scholar 

  • Luce CH, Abatzoglou JT, Holden ZA (2013) The missing mountain water: slower westerlies decrease orographic enhancement in the Pacific Northwest USA. Science 342(6164):1360–1364. doi:10.1126/science.1242335

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Luce CH, Lopez-Burgos V, Holden Z (2014) Sensitivity of snowpack storage to precipitation and temperature using spatial and temporal analog models. Water Resour Res 50:9447–9462. doi:10.1002/2013WR014844

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lundquist JD, Flint AL (2006) Onset of snowmelt and streamflow in 2004 in the Western United States: how shading May affect spring streamflow timing in a warmer world. J Hydrometeorol 7:1199–1217. doi:10.1175/JHM539.1

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lute AC, Abatzoglou JT, Hegewisch KC (2015) Projected changes in snowfall extremes and interannual variability of snowfall in the Western United States. Water Resour Res 51:960–972. doi:10.1002/2014WR016267

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Maurer EP (2007) Uncertainty in hydrologic impacts of climate change in the Sierra Nevada, California, under two emissions scenarios. Clim Chang 82:309–325. doi:10.1007/s10584-006-9180-9

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McKenzie D, Littell JS (2016) Climate change and the eco-hydrology of fire: will area burned increase in a warming Western US? Ecol Appl. doi:10.1002/eap.1420

    Google Scholar 

  • Minder JR, Mote PW, Lundquist JD (2010) Surface temperature lapse rates over complex terrain: lessons from the Cascade Mountains. J Geophys Res 115, D14122. doi:10.1029/2009JD012493

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mizukami N, Clark MP, Slater AG, Brekke LD, Elsner MM, Arnold JR, Gangopadhyay S (2013) Hydrologic implications of different large-scale meteorological model forcing datasets in mountainous regions. J Hydrometeorol 15:474–488. doi:10.1175/JHM-D-13-036.1

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mizukami N, Clark MP, Gutmann ED, Mendoza PA, Newman AJ, Nijssen B, Livneh B, Hay LE, Arnold JR, Brekke LD (2016) Implications of the methodological choices for hydrologic portrayals of climate change over the contiguous United States: statistically downscaled forcing data and hydrologic models. J of Hydromet 17(1):73–98. doi:10.1175/JHM-D-14-0187.1

  • Mote PW (2006) Climate-driven variability and trends in mountain snowpack in western North America. J Clim 19:6209–6220. doi:10.1175/JCLI3971.1

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mote PW, Hamlet AF, Clark MP, Lettenmaier DP (2005) Declining mountain snowpack in western North America. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 86(1):39–49. doi:10.1175/BAMS-86-1-39

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Northwest Knowledge Network (NKN) University of Idaho applied climate science lab, http://climate.northwestknowledge.net/

  • Rupp DE, Abatzoglou JT, Hegewisch KC, Mote PW (2013) Evaluation of CMIP5 20th century climate simulations for the Pacific Northwest USA. J Geophys Res Atmos 118:10884–10906. doi:10.1002/jgrd.50843

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scalzitti J, Strong C, Kochanski A (2016) Climate change impact on the roles of temperature and precipitation in Western U.S. snowpack variability. Geophys Res Lett 43. doi: 10.1002/2016GL068798

  • Sillmann J, Kharin VV, Zwiers FW, Zhang X, Bronaugh D (2013) Climate Extremes indices in the CMIP5 multimodel ensemble: part 2. Future climate projections. J Geophys Res Atmos 118:2473–2493. doi:10.1002/jgrd.50188

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Simard A (1968) The moisture content of forest fuels—a review of the basic concepts. Technical report. USDA, Forest Service, Ottawa

    Google Scholar 

  • Stavros EN, Abatzoglou JT, McKenzie D, Larkin NK (2014) Regional projections of the likelihood of very large wildland fires under a changing climate in the contiguous Western United States. Clim Chang 126(3–4):455–468. doi:10.1007/S10584-014-1229-6

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stewart IT, Cayan DR, Dettinger MD (2004) Changes in snowmelt runoff timing in western North America under a “business as usual” climate change scenario. Clim Chang 62:217–232. doi:10.1023/B:CLIM.0000013702.22656.e8

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stewart IT, Cayan DR, Dettinger MD (2005) Changes toward earlier streamflow timing across western North America. J Clim 18:1136–1155. doi:10.1175/JCLI3321.1

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Taylor KE, Stouffer RJ, Meehl GA (2011) An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 93. doi:10.1175/bams-d-11-00094.1

  • Turner DP, Conklin DR, Vache KB, Schwartz C, Nolin AW, Chang H, Watson E, Bolte JP (2016) Assessing mechanisms of climate change impact on the upland forest water balance of the Willamette River Basin. Or Ecohydrol. doi:10.1002/eco.1776

    Google Scholar 

  • Watershed Boundary Dataset. Coordinated effort between the United States Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS), the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Watershed Boundary Dataset for HUC-02s: Great Basin, Missouri, Lower Colorado. Available URL: http://datagateway.nrcs.usda.gov. Accessed 15/07/2015

  • Westerling ALR (2016) Increasing Western US forest wildfire activity: sensitivity to changes in the timing of spring. Philos Trans R Soc B 371:20150178. doi:10.1098/rstb.2015.0178

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Westerling AL, Gershunov A, Cayan DR, Dettinger MD (2003) Climate and wildfire in the Western United States. BAMS 84:595–604. doi:10.1175/BAMS-84-5-595

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Westerling AL, Hidalgo HG, Cayan DR, Swetnam TW (2006) Warming and earlier spring increase Western U.S. forest wildfire activity. Science 313:940. doi:10.1126/science.1128834

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Westerling AL, Bryant BP, Preisler HK, Holmes TP, Hidalgo HG, Das T, Shrestha SR (2011a) Climate change and growth scenarios for California wildfire. Clim Chang 109:445–463. doi:10.1007/s10584-011-0329-9

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Westerling AL, Turner MG, Smithwick EAH, Romme WH, Ryan MG (2011b) Continued warming could transform Greater Yellowstone fire regimes by mid-21st century. PNAS 108(32):13165–13170. doi:10.1073/pnas.1110199108

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wood AW, Leung LR, Sridhar V, Lettenmaier DP (2004) Hydrologic implications of dynamical and statistical approaches to downscaling climate model outputs. Clim Chang 62:189–216. doi:10.1023/B:CLIM.0000013685.99609.9e

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bart Nijssen.

Electronic supplementary material

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Gergel, D.R., Nijssen, B., Abatzoglou, J.T. et al. Effects of climate change on snowpack and fire potential in the western USA. Climatic Change 141, 287–299 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-1899-y

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-1899-y

Keywords

  • Snow Water Equivalent
  • Fire Potential
  • Fuel Moisture
  • Variable Infiltration Capacity
  • Lowland Region