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Keywords:

  • streamflow;
  • snowmelt;
  • climate change;
  • cryosphere;
  • mountain;
  • snow

Abstract

Mountain snowpack and spring runoff are key components of surface water resources, and serve as important, regionally integrated indicators of climate variability and change. This study examines whether mountain snowpack and snowmelt have manifested a consistent hydrologic response to global climatic changes over the past several decades. Prior findings are compared to identify spatial and temporal patterns of trends in the volume, extent, and seasonality of snowpack and melt for key mountain regions. Evidence suggests that both temperature and precipitation increases to date have impacted mountain snowpacks simultaneously on the global scale; however, the nature of the impact is, among other factors, strongly dependent on geographic location, latitude, and elevation. Warmer temperatures at mid-elevations have decreased snowpack and resulted in earlier melt in spite of precipitation increases, while they have not affected high-elevation regions that remain well below freezing during winter. At high elevations, precipitation increases have resulted in increased snowpack. Not all local responses are consistent with the general findings, possibly because of local climatic trends, atmospheric circulation patterns, record lengths, or data quality issues. With continued warming, increasingly higher elevations are projected to experience declines in snowpack accumulation and melt that can no longer be offset by winter precipitation increases. There is a continued research need for hydroclimatic trend detection and attribution in mountains owing to the length, quality, and sparseness of available data from monitoring stations not directly impacted by human activity. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.