It’s that time of year in the West. Winter enthusiasts have started waxing their skis and crossing their fingers for a plentiful snowpack — something that’s been in short supply of late. Of course, it’s not just recreation at stake, as a sweeping droughtStill holds a stronghold in a region that requires a lot more water to replenish depleted ecosystems and reservoirs.
Tourists are glued to the weather reports on weekends, but scientists are also keeping an eye out for winter conditions.
A new studyIn Nature Reviews Earth & EnvironmentThe alarm sounds about the mounting evidence that the West is on the right track to a future where snow is not a regular winter occurrence. If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t reduced, models show significant reductions in snowpack in the West’s mountains over the next 35 to 60 years — with far-reaching implications for ecosystems, agriculture and communities.
Erica Siirila-Woodburn, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and one of the study’s lead authors, says these findings shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The April 1 snow-water equivalent — a common measurement to determine the amount of water in snowpack — has already declined by 20% since the mid-1950s.
“This isn’t a future problem. This is something that’s already happening,” she says.
While things aren’t great now, they’re likely to get much worse during the second half of the century, the study explains.
During the second half of the century, the models predict that most years in the West — from 78-94% of winters — will see little to no snow. This shift will be first in California. Five consecutive years of snowpack less than half the average could be seen in California as soon as the late 2040s. This is in contrast to the 2060s in other mountain basins of the West.
Despite these troubling predictions, the issue of snowpack declines still doesn’t get enough attention in discussions about climate change, says study co-author Alan Rhoades, a hydroclimate research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley.
“We wanted to elevate the urgency of snow loss to the level of some other climate impacts that we often see in the news, like sea-level rise, wildfires and extreme weather events,” he says. “We view this as one of the central issues for the Western U.S. in terms of water supply, reliability and ecosystem health.”
A significant decline in winter snowpack is likely to have “multibillion-dollar implications,” the study explains.
The West’s water system was built around reliance on a snowpack that builds up over the winter months and then melts in the late spring or summer, helping to fill reservoirs and irrigate farmland at the driest times of the year.
The accumulation of snow in the mountains function like giant reservoirs — and big ones.
“The April 1st snow-water equivalent in the Sierra Nevada roughly doubles the surface reservoir storage of California,” explains Rhoades. “Not only that, snow is this bridge between when precipitation starts to shut off — like when we start to stop getting atmospheric rivers or these major storm events that drive precipitation — and then when peak demand occurs.”
However, warmer temperatures due to our burning of fossil fuels are affecting how much snow falls. It’s also leading to runoff occurring earlier inThe year, which may not align with when it’s needed most by people — or plants and animals.
Warming temperatures also mean that even less water may reach downstream reservoirs because it’s being absorbed by thirstier soil and plants along the way — further diminishing water supply.
Sometimes even a seemingly small reduction in snow can have large effects on water availability when combined with higher temperatures and drought conditions — as was the case recently in the Colorado River basin.
“Last year, there was 83% snowpack in the Colorado Rockies that really turned into about 30% hydrology, meaning that by the time the snow melted, only 30% of it actually went into hydrology — into the river and down the basin,” Randy Lavasseur, acting superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, told the Camas-Washougal Post-Record. “The rest of it, the soils were so dry, it just absorbed in the soil.”
We may see a decrease in water availability for ecosystems, which could impact the ability of plants to grow. Wildfire risk can also be increased by dry vegetation. A host of aquatic species could be endangered if there is less water in rivers or wetlands. Many species of salmon are already in existence. struggling to survive in rivers where low flows become too warm in summer months for the cold-water loving fish — a scenario that’s likely to get much worse with a diminishing snowpack.
People will feel the pinch too.
A significant reduction in water supply could result in the drying up of millions of acres of irrigated agriculture land, reducing the availability of drinking water for rural residents and urban dwellers alike, and also reducing hydroelectric generation power.
While the most significant reductions in snowpack are still decades ahead, planning for potential changes to water availability should start happening right away, the study’s authors say.
“The climate is projected to change pretty dramatically over the next 50 years,” says Rhoades. “So if we do need more infrastructure or we need to alter how we manage our infrastructure, how do we take into account the changing hydro-climate?”
We’ll need to get creative with ways to reduce how much water we use and stretch water supplies further. Efficiency and conservation will be essential for households and businesses. Groundwater reservoirs can also be managed to increase their storage capacity and take advantage of excess water when it happens. New technologies can be used to improve the management of groundwater reservoirs, reduce pollution, and transform wastewater into potable drinking water.
Whatever solutions are employed, though, they’ll need to be done with the long-term climate picture in mind and other ecological considerations, like preserving biodiversity.
“Decisions and investments made today will extend multiple generations, operate for half-centuries or more, and need to function within rapidly changing hydroclimatic conditions,” the researchers write.
Employing different demand and supply-side solutions will also take time, money and a lot of collaboration — which is why the study’s authors urge action right away. Not just water managers. Everyone from academics to stakeholders and policymakers need to get out of their traditional “silos” and work together to address the problem.
“I think partnership shouldn’t be overlooked,” says Siirila-Woodburn.
With an entire water infrastructure system built across the West “based on the assumption of an abundant snowpack,” he says, “there hasn’t been a lot of proactive thought in a concerted way on what we do about that changing.”
Siirila Woodburn says now is the best time to get started on that proactive planning.
“This needs to be an urgent consideration.”
The deputy editor of The RevelatorShe has been a digital editor and an environmental journalist for over a decade. Her focus is on the intersections between energy, water, and climate. Her work was published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific StandardOthers. She is the editor for two books on the global crisis of water.