Changes in snowpack accumulation and ablation in the intermountain west

Adrian Harpold, Paul Brooks, Seshadri Rajagopal, Ingo Heidbuchel, Angela Jardine, Clare Stielstra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

142 Scopus citations


Recent observations have documented declining snow water equivalent (SWE) and earlier melt in the coastal Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, and climate models suggest that warming temperatures will decrease snowpack storage in the higher-elevation mountain ranges of interior western North America. To date, however, observations of changing SWE or snowmelt have been limited to the state of Colorado in the intermountain west (IMW), defined here as the Rio Grande, Colorado River, and Great Basins, which supply water to the driest regions of North America. We used daily SNOTEL data collected between 1984 and 2009 combined with the nonparametric regional Kendall test to demonstrate significant and widespread changes in the duration of snow cover in these river basins. Daily SNOTEL data demonstrated that basin average maximum SWE occurred as early as 7 March (Lower Colorado River Basin) and as late as 13 April (Upper Colorado, Yampa, and White River Basins). Although significant increases in winter temperature (T) were widespread, there were minimal changes in the day of maximum accumulation and no indications from SWE to winter precipitation ratios (SWE:P) and winter T observations that a transition from snow to rain had occurred. While there was little change in day of maximum accumulation, the duration of snow cover decreased in 11 of 13 drainage regions, and snowmelt center of mass (SM50) advanced 1 to 4 days per decade in 6 of 13 regions. There were significant trends toward a faster SM50 and shorter duration of snow cover in the highest-elevation regions (>2800 m) of the Colorado River Basin, suggesting that winter T and P may not be the primary driver of change. Our results show that the IMW hydroclimate is both spatially and temporally variable, with few changes in winter T and P in the Great Basin and drier and warmer winters in the Colorado River and Rio Grande Basins. The changes in snowmelt timing also were variable, with a shorter SM50 and less maximum SWE in the Colorado River and Rio Grande Basins. The variable response of snowpacks in the IMW to widespread warming highlights the need for additional research into the mass and energy balance of these continental snowpacks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberW11501
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number11
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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