U.S. Geological Survey: Warmer Springs Causing Loss Of Snow Cover Throughout The Rocky Mountains

Melting snow fields in the Rocky Mountains.A new U.S. Geological Survey study finds, “Warmer spring temperatures since 1980 are causing an estimated 20 percent loss of snow cover across the Rocky Mountains of western North America.”

The USGS explains, “The new study builds upon a previous USGS snowpack investigation which showed that, until the 1980s, the northern Rocky Mountains experienced large snowpacks when the central and southern Rockies experienced meager ones, and vice versa. Yet, since the 1980s, there have been simultaneous snowpack declines along the entire length of the Rocky Mountains, and unusually severe declines in the north.”

We reported on that previous work in 2011 — see “USGS: Global Warming Drives Rockies Snowpack Loss Unrivaled in 800 Years, Threatens Western Water Supply.” The USGS explained back then:

The warming and snowpack decline are projected to worsen through the 21st century, foreshadowing a strain on water supplies. Runoff from winter snowpack – layers of snow that accumulate at high altitude – accounts for 60 to 80 percent of the annual water supply for more than 70 million people living in the western United States.

What’s most worrisome is that we now have three major trends driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases that threaten to significantly worsen drought and water problems in the West and Southwest:

  1. Less precipitation in many areas (see here)
  2. Less snowpack, as the USGS studies have found
  3. Hotter temperatures (see “We’re Already Topping Dust Bowl Temperatures — Imagine What’ll Happen If We Fail To Stop 10°F Warming“).

Assuming the anti-science crowd continue to block any serious action, these catastrophic changes will last a long, long time (see NOAA: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).

For the record, it was the possibility of losing the Sierra snowpack in the second half of the century that led then Energy Secretary Chu to warn in 2009, “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

Geophysical Research Letters published the new research, Regional patterns and proximal causes of the recent snowpack decline in the Rocky Mountains” (subs. req’d). Here are the key points from the USGS news release:

The new study has teased apart and quantified the different influences of winter temperature, spring temperature, and precipitation on historic snowpack variations and trends in the region. To distinguish those varying influences, the researchers implemented a regional snow model that uses inputs of monthly temperature and precipitation data from 1895 to 2011.

“Each year we looked at temperature and precipitation variations and the amount of water contained within the snowpack as of April,” said USGS scientist Greg Pederson, the lead author of the study. “Snow deficits were consistent throughout the Rockies due to the lack of precipitation during the cool seasons during the 1930s – coinciding with the Dust Bowl era.  From 1980 on, warmer spring temperatures melted snowpack throughout the Rockies early, regardless of winter precipitation. The model in turn shows temperature as the major driving factor in snowpack declines over the past thirty years.”

… The timing of snowmelt affects not only when water is available for crop irrigation and energy production from hydroelectric dams, but also the risk of regional floods and wildfires. Earlier and faster snowmelt could have repercussions for water supply, risk management, and ecosystem health in western watersheds.

… [Greg] McCabe, co-author of the study, explains that “recent springtime warming also reduced the extent of snow cover at low to middle elevations where temperature has had the greatest impact.”

What’s particularly worrisome is that we’ve seen these dramatic and harmful changes already — and we’ve only warmed about a degree and a half Fahrenheit in the past century.  The problem for our children and grandchildren is that if we continue anywhere near our current greenhouse gas emissions pathway, we are on track to warm five times times that or more this century (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).

Another 2011 study, “The Last Drop: Climate Change and the Southwest Water Crisis,” found that drought and reduced precipitation in the U.S. SW alone could cost up to $1 trillion by century’s end.

The time to act was a long time ago, but now is still better than later.

24 Responses to U.S. Geological Survey: Warmer Springs Causing Loss Of Snow Cover Throughout The Rocky Mountains

  1. Superman1 says:

    I have spent time in hospital rooms, watching the biomarkers of relatives and friends gradually decline as they passed from this world into the next. Articles like this bring back these memories, only this time the planet is the patient.

  2. catman306 says:

    I wonder how much of that early snow melt is due to carbon and other particulates (human caused pollution, wild fire smoke and dust storms) on the snow surface.

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    At the rate we are going, there is going to come a point where the downward trajectory of the global economy crosses the upward trajectory of the disaster bill. Let’s hope the forces for good are getting organized behind the scenes, ME

  4. Dave S. Nottear says:

    That’s a good analogy. Sometimes it feels like we are doing our own autopsy already, but that is just when I’m depressed.

    Like Joe said, “The time to act was a long time ago, but now is still better than later.”

    Better late than never is right.

    Unfortunately, I agree with Mish Shedlock, “the odds that government will do something reasonable about (climate change) is close to zero.”

    The world’s industrial countries are preoccupied with competing for resources and economic growth.

    A global industrial depression might help decrease emissions. But there will be a lot of social pain in the poorest countries, who will likely pay the most.

  5. Dave S. Nottear says:

    I second your hope for the forces of good.

    I also hope the forces for good are competent.

    I think president Bush started Homeland security with good intentions.

  6. Paul Klinkman says:

    Snow cover reflects sunlight back into space, and some of it desiccates into the atmosphere. Places downwind on the Great Plains will probably have hotter springtimes, not to mention less humid springtimes.

    The strange things that the land owners in these states want to vote for!

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Have you ever seen anyone recover for critical illness?

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Auto-vivisection, eh? Sounds almost right. I still see the elite wielding the scalpels, like a pack of zombie Shiro Ishiis, with the MSM assisting by mopping up the gore and denying the blood-letting.

  9. Superman1 says:

    “A global industrial depression might help decrease emissions.” A number of serious scholars are making that point. Tim Garrett, University of Utah, emphasizes the necessity for a global economic depression for emissions reduction, and Kevin Anderson, using the more politically correct term of ‘prolonged austerity’, is saying exactly the same thing.

  10. Superman1 says:

    But, then there are our resident ‘deniers’, who continue to promote the fiction that no sacrifice is required during the emissions reduction process, and global prosperity will be available for all. Reality is not their strong suit!

  11. Superman1 says:

    I’ve read about it, but have not seen it with my own eyes. For example, every one of my family members and friends who have had advanced cancer did not recover. But, certainly, I know people in long-term remission from early stage cancer.

  12. Superman1 says:

    One inspiring case was a Doctor who reversed her own debilitating multiple sclerosis; it is documented in Minding My Mitochondria. Her approach was what the Amen Corner here would call ‘draconian sacrifice’. She did whatever was required to eliminate what had caused her multiple sclerosis, which is exactly what I believe is required for fossil fuel use if we are to have any chance of saving the biosphere.

  13. catman306 says:

    We blab a lot about distributed energy, but ExxonMobil’s doing something about it. Its patented delivery system — now undergoing beta testing in Mayflower, Ark. — puts energy in your lawn, on water, on birds, and in your pants so you’ll never have to go without. Check it:

  14. James says:

    Scientists project that as temperatures rise, winter will end earlier. In some places, this is already happening.

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Good one, ME

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well, do you think that we are already end-stage, as a civilization or species and is the earth-system, with its extraordinary resilience, not rather more capable of regeneration than a single human being? After all Nature rather swiftly despatches us once our genetic duty is done. Spontaneous remissions are quite rare, but not unknown.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You can just about cure most of the metabolic diseases plaguing humanity, diabetes etc, by a radical reduction in caloric intake, and making one’s diet rich in fruit and vegies, especially leafy greens. That’s been known for a long time, but the food sludge industrial complex, allied with the medical Big Pharma complex, don’t like preventative medicine. Neither does the fossil fuel Mafia like preventative action.

  18. Superman1 says:

    Mulga, I approach climate change the same way I approach any other serious problem/challenge. Where are we now; where do we need to go; what are the major roadblocks between where we are and where we need to go; what pathways are required to overcome these roadblocks, and what is their feasibility?

  19. Superman1 says:

    The only other problem I have seen/worked with as large a gap between where we are and where we need to go is the cell phone effects problem. Its similarities to climate change are astounding, and its denier base is even larger. Both problems, for very similar reasons, have negligible chance of being solved.

  20. Superman1 says:

    For climate change, I see no stakeholder group willing to make the ‘draconian sacrifices’ required to avoid catastrophe. Quite the opposite: all the involved stakeholder groups (energy companies, energy workers, electorate/users, politicians) seem to be supporting all-out use of fossil fuels, despite the glowing words about avoiding the catastrophe that they periodically utter.

  21. Superman1 says:

    Given the lag times inherent in climate change, by the time global disruption forces the citizenry to take appropriate actions, it will be far too late for amelioration, due to the built-in multi-decadal warming commitments. Given the spate of articles in the last couple of years on what Earth was like when last at present CO2 levels, it is clear that we have under-estimated the climate sensitivity and seriousness of the situation today.

  22. Camburn says:

    Won’t be long and it will be just like before the LIA. During that time snow pack expanded, glaciers grew……

    And during the MWP, glaciers in Glacier National Park were extinct.

  23. riverat says:

    And during the MWP, glaciers in Glacier National Park were extinct.

    Did you just make that up? Most of the glaciers in Glacier National Park have been in continuous existence since before the end of the last glaciation 10,000 years ago. At the current rate of warming they’ll be gone in 10 years.