Simulating the potential effects of climate change in two Colorado basins and at two Colorado ski areas

Earth Interactions
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Abstract

The mountainous areas of Colorado are used for tourism and recreation, and they provide water storage and supply for municipalities, industries, and agriculture. Recent studies suggest that water supply and tourist industries such as skiing are at risk from climate change. In this study, a distributed-parameter watershed model, the Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System (PRMS), is used to identify the potential effects of future climate on hydrologic conditions for two Colorado basins, the East River at Almont and the Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, and at the subbasin scale for two ski areas within those basins.

Climate-change input files for PRMS were generated by modifying daily PRMS precipitation and temperature inputs with mean monthly climate-change fields of precipitation and temperature derived from five general circulation model (GCM) simulations using one current and three future carbon emission scenarios. All GCM simulations of mean daily minimum and maximum air temperature for the East and Yampa River basins indicate a relatively steady increase of up to several degrees Celsius from baseline conditions by 2094. GCM simulations of precipitation in the two basins indicate little change or trend in precipitation, but there is a large range associated with these projections. PRMS projections of basin mean daily streamflow vary by scenario but indicate a central tendency toward slight decreases, with a large range associated with these projections.

Decreases in water content or changes in the spatial extent of snowpack in the East and Yampa River basins are important because of potential adverse effects on water supply and recreational activities. PRMS projections of each future scenario indicate a central tendency for decreases in basin mean snow-covered area and snowpack water equivalent, with the range in the projected decreases increasing with time. However, when examined on a monthly basis, the projected decreases are most dramatic during fall and spring. Presumably, ski area locations are picked because of a tendency to receive snow and keep snowpack relative to the surrounding area. This effect of ski area location within the basin was examined by comparing projections of March snow-covered area and snowpack water equivalent for the entire basin with more local projections for the portion of the basin that represents the ski area in the PRMS models. These projections indicate a steady decrease in March snow-covered area for the basins but only small changes in March snow-covered area at both ski areas for the three future scenarios until around 2050. After 2050, larger decreases are possible, but there is a large range in the projections of future scenarios. The rates of decrease for snowpack water equivalent and precipitation that falls as snow are similar at the basin and subbasin scale in both basins. Results from this modeling effort show that there is a wide range of possible outcomes for future snowpack conditions in Colorado. The results also highlight the differences between projections for entire basins and projections for local areas or subbasins within those basins.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Simulating the potential effects of climate change in two Colorado basins and at two Colorado ski areas
Series title Earth Interactions
DOI 10.1175/2011EI373.1
Volume 15
Issue 22
Year Published 2011
Language English
Publisher American Meteorological Society
Contributing office(s) Colorado Water Science Center
Description 23 p.
First page 1
Last page 23
Country United States
State Colorado
Other Geospatial East River, Yampa River