Geophysical Research Letters

Maximum discharge from snowmelt in a changing climate

Authors

  • Annalisa Molini,

    1. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA
    2. Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA
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  • Gabriel G. Katul,

    1. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA
    2. Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA
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  • Amilcare Porporato

    1. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA
    2. Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA
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Abstract

[1] Predicted changes in precipitation and air temperature patterns can lead to major alterations in timing and volume of mountain snowmelt runoff with a possible increased incidence of catastrophic events such as flooding and summer droughts. Here, the role of the temperature seasonal cycle and the relative duration of cold and warm seasons on the partitioning of precipitation into snow and rainfall, snow accumulation and melting dynamics, and the resulting mountain runoff formation are investigated. Using a minimalist analytical model, it is shown that while increased air temperatures reduce snow accumulation in the winter, thus reducing the subsequent snowmelt volumes, they also intensify the rate of snowmelt, thus increasing the discharge peaks per given accumulated snow. The main consequence is the existence of an optimal energy input for which the annual peak discharge reaches an absolute maximum. Such maximum separates a cold regime, where peak discharge is limited by slow melting dynamics, from a warm regime in which peak discharge is reduced by decreased winter snow accumulation.

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