The Colorado River provides water to 40 million people in seven western states and two countries and to 5.5 million irrigated acres. The river has long been overallocated. Climate models project runoff losses of 5–20% from the basin by mid-21st century due to human-induced climate change. Recent work has shown that decreased snow albedo from anthropogenic dust loading to the CO mountains shortens the duration of snow cover by several weeks relative to conditions prior to western expansion of the US in the mid-1800s, and advances peak runoff at Lees Ferry, Arizona, by an average of 3 weeks. Increases in evapotranspiration from earlier exposure of soils and germination of plants have been estimated to decrease annual runoff by more than 1.0 billion cubic meters, or ~5% of the annual average. This prior work was based on observed dust loadings during 2005–2008; however, 2009 and 2010 saw unprecedented levels of dust loading on snowpacks in the Upper Colorado River Basin (UCRB), being on the order of 5 times the 2005–2008 loading. Building on our prior work, we developed a new snow albedo decay parameterization based on observations in 2009/10 to mimic the radiative forcing of extreme dust deposition. We convolve low, moderate, and extreme dust/snow albedos with both historic climate forcing and two future climate scenarios via a delta method perturbation of historic records. Compared to moderate dust, extreme dust absorbs 2× to 4× the solar radiation, and shifts peak snowmelt an additional 3 weeks earlier to a total of 6 weeks earlier than pre-disturbance. The extreme dust scenario reduces annual flow volume an additional 1% (6% compared to pre-disturbance), a smaller difference than from low to moderate dust scenarios due to melt season shifting into a season of lower evaporative demand. The sensitivity of flow timing to dust radiative forcing of snow albedo is maintained under future climate scenarios, but the sensitivity of flow volume reductions decreases with increased climate forcing. These results have implications for water management and suggest that dust abatement efforts could be an important component of any climate adaptation strategies in the UCRB.
Additional publication details
Combined impacts of current and future dust deposition and regional warming on Colorado River Basin snow dynamics and hydrology