What Snow Droughts Will Mean for Western States

Image: Scott Webb

by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

Recent research in Geophysical Research Letters has revealed that “back-to-back bad snow years are likely to become much more frequent in the not-too-distant future,” Alejandra Borunda reported in National Geographic this month.

There is now approximately a 7% chance that typically snow-filled regions in the Western US will “get two really bad snow years in a row—years with snowpack lower than a quarter of the long-term average.”

 Why This Matters: Seven percent may not sound like much. But, in the next few decades, as Borunda noted, “those bookending ‘snow droughts’ could occur 40% of the time.” This rise would be devastating for these regions; as Laurie Huning, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California Irvine, told Phys.org, “Snow is an important global water resource that plays a vital role in natural processes, agriculture, hydropower and basic socioeconomic conditions of various regions.”

These snow droughts could wreak havoc across the West which relies on snow to keep soils resistant against fires, maintain ecosystems rich in biodiversity, and provide water for millions of people (a threat already apparent in the alarming water loss across the Colorado River which is fed by Rocky Mountain snow).


An Intensifying History: Not only do we now know that snow droughts are going to become more frequent, but recent research has also shown that this problem has been intensifying for a long while. Environmental engineers out of UC Irvine, including Laurie Huning (quoted above), have “developed a new framework for characterizing snow droughts around the world.” What they found was deeply concerning. As Phys.org reported, these researchers discovered a 28% increase in the “length of intensified snow-water deficits in the Western United States during the second half” of the period from 1980 to 2018.

Snow’s Significance: As Borunda wrote, “snow is a secret saviour.” While we may think of snow as auxiliary, it is not for many populations of both people and animals. According to Huning, “Snowmelt provides freshwater to more than a billion people, one sixth of the world’s population.” And, Huning noted,  “Water from melting snow irrigates the crops of farming regions including areas that seldom if ever receive any snow during the winter, such as California’s Central Valley.”

More snow droughts in the future, according to Alan Rhoades, an expert at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, could have “huge social and economic impacts.” Now that we know this is a possibility, we must work towards both lessening anthropogenic climate change, as well as alleviating the potential consequences of snow drought.

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