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Consequences of declining snow accumulation for water balance of mid-latitude dry regions


Correspondence: Daniel R. Schlaepfer, tel. + 1 307 766 2484, fax + 1 307 766 2851, e-mail:


Widespread documentation of positive winter temperature anomalies, declining snowpack and earlier snow melt in the Northern Hemisphere have raised concerns about the consequences for regional water resources as well as wildfire. A topic that has not been addressed with respect to declining snowpack is effects on ecosystem water balance. Changes in water balance dynamics will be particularly pronounced at low elevations of mid-latitude dry regions because these areas will be the first to be affected by declining snow as a result of rising temperatures. As a model system, we used simulation experiments to investigate big sagebrush ecosystems that dominate a large fraction of the semiarid western United States. Our results suggest that effects on future ecosystem water balance will increase along a climatic gradient from dry, warm and snow-poor to wet, cold and snow-rich. Beyond a threshold within this climatic gradient, predicted consequences for vegetation switched from no change to increasing transpiration. Responses were sensitive to uncertainties in climatic prediction; particularly, a shift of precipitation to the colder season could reduce impacts of a warmer and snow-poorer future, depending on the degree to which ecosystem phenology tracks precipitation changes. Our results suggest that big sagebrush and other similar semiarid ecosystems could decrease in viability or disappear in dry to medium areas and likely increase only in the snow-richest areas, i.e. higher elevations and higher latitudes. Unlike cold locations at high elevations or in the arctic, ecosystems at low elevations respond in a different and complex way to future conditions because of opposing effects of increasing water-limitation and a longer snow-free season. Outcomes of such nonlinear interactions for future ecosystems will likely include changes in plant composition and productivity, dynamics of water balance, and availability of water resources.

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