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Utah Can Expect More Back-To-Back Low Snowpack Years Under High Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The scientists ran 10 climate models to predict year-to-year changes in snowpack. Red indicates at least 50% of models agreed that the area will have increased back-to-back low snowpack years, gray indicates no change, and blue indicates a decrease.

A new study looking at year-to-year snowpack in the western US found that back-to-back low snow years will be more frequent if the world continues along the business-as-usual emissions trajectory.

“Climate change is affecting the average snow accumulation in the mountainous West, but nobody had looked as much at how interannual variability is changing. It has different effects than the mean changes we already knew about,” said Adrienne Marshall, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Idaho who studies the impacts of climate change on snow.

Marshall and her team used publicly available data on snowpack to run climate models. These models predicted future climate across the western United States under historical greenhouse gas emissions and future high greenhouse gas emissions. They found that climate change will cause changes in snowpack from year to year.

“In Utah in many of the lower-elevation parts of your mountain ranges, we see increases in those multi-year snow droughts. Some of the higher elevations, they’re a little less sensitive to those changes. The timing of maximum snowpack is occurring earlier in the year, and we found that is becoming more variable,” Marshall said.

Marshall said that these changes could impact recreation and agriculture in Utah.

“A lot of Utahns like to ski or snowboard. This might have implications for the profitability of ski resorts. It matters for forest health - increasing snow drought conditions can make it harder for trees to have enough water longer in the summer season. We all rely on water for agriculture, and we know that changing snowpack affects water resources,” Marshall said.

These findings came from models run using a high-emissions scenario. It’s possible, if emissions are reduced, that the impacts on year-to-year snowpack could be weaker.