Alaska snowpack response to climate change: Statewide snowfall equivalent and snowpack water scenarios

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Climatically driven changes in snow characteristics (snowfall, snowpack, and snowmelt) will affect hydrologic and ecological systems in Alaska over the coming century, yet there exist no projections of downscaled future snow pack metrics for the state of Alaska. We updated historical and projected snow day fraction (PSF, the fraction of days with precipitation falling as snow) from McAfee et al. We developed modeled snowfall equivalent (SFE) derived from the product of snow-day fraction (PSF) and existing gridded precipitation for Alaska from Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning (SNAP). We validated the assumption that modeled SFE approximates historical decadally averaged snow water equivalent (SWE) observations from snowcourse and Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) sites. We present analyses of future downscaled PSF and two new products, October–March SFE and ratio of snow fall equivalent to precipitation (SFE:P) based on bias-corrected statistically downscaled projections of Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 (CMIP5) Global Climate Model (GCM) temperature and precipitation for the state of Alaska. We analyzed mid-century (2040–2069) and late-century (2070–2099) changes in PSF, SFE, and SFE:P relative to historical (1970–1999) mean temperature and present results for Alaska climate divisions and 12-digit Hydrologic Unit Code (HUC12) watersheds. Overall, estimated historical the SFE is reasonably well related to the observed SWE, with correlations over 0.75 in all decades, and correlations exceeding 0.9 in the 1960s and 1970s. In absolute terms, SFE is generally biased low compared to the observed SWE. PSF and SFE:P decrease universally across Alaska under both Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 4.5 and RCP 8.5 emissions scenarios, with the smallest changes for RCP 4.5 in 2040–2069 and the largest for RCP 8.5 in 2070–2099. The timing and magnitude of maximum decreases in PSF vary considerably with regional average temperature, with the largest changes in months at the beginning and end of the snow season. Mean SFE changes vary widely among climate divisions, ranging from decreases between −17 and −58% for late twenty-first century in southeast, southcentral, west coast and southwest Alaska to increases up to 21% on the North Slope. SFE increases most at highest elevations and latitudes and decreases most in coastal southern Alaska. SFE:P ratios indicate a broad switch from snow-dominated to transitional annual hydrology across most of southern Alaska by mid-century, and from transitional to rain-dominated watersheds in low elevation parts of southeast Alaska by the late twenty-first century. 

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Alaska snowpack response to climate change: Statewide snowfall equivalent and snowpack water scenarios
Series title Water
DOI 10.3390/w10050668
Volume 10
Issue 5
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher MDPI
Contributing office(s) Alaska Climate Science Center
Description Article 668; 16 p.
First page 1
Last page 16
Country United States
State Alaska
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