This study uses dynamical and statistical methods to understand end‐of‐century mean changes to Sierra Nevada snowpack. Dynamical results reveal mid‐elevation watersheds experience considerably more rain than snow during winter, leading to substantial snowpack declines by spring. Despite some high‐elevation watersheds receiving slightly more snow in January and February, the warming signal still dominates across the wet‐season and leads to notable declines by springtime. A statistical model is created to mimic dynamical results for April 1 snowpack, allowing for an efficient downscaling of all available General Circulation Models (GCMs) from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5. For all GCMs and emissions scenarios, dramatic April 1 snowpack loss occurs at elevations below 2500 meters, despite increased precipitation in many GCMs. Only 36% (±12%) of historical April 1 total snow water equivalent volume remains at the century's end under a “business‐as‐usual” emissions scenario, with 70% (±12%) remaining under a realistic “mitigation” scenario.
This study investigates temperature impacts to snowpack and runoff‐driven flood risk over the Sierra Nevada during the extremely wet year of 2016–2017, which followed the extraordinary California drought of 2011–2015. By perturbing near‐surface temperatures from a 9‐km dynamically downscaled simulation, a series of offline land surface model experiments explore how Sierra Nevada hydrology has already been impacted by historical anthropogenic warming and how these impacts evolve under future warming scenarios. Results show that historical warming reduced 2016–2017 Sierra Nevada snow water equivalent by 20% while increasing early‐season runoff by 30%. An additional one third to two thirds loss of snowpack is projected by the end of the century, depending on the emission scenario, with middle elevations experiencing the most significant declines. Notably, the number of days in the future with runoff exceeding 20 mm nearly doubles under a mitigation emission scenarios and triples under a business‐as‐usual scenario. A smaller snow‐to‐rain ratio, as opposed to increased snowmelt, is found to be the primary mechanism of temperature impacts to Sierra snowpack and runoff. These findings are consequential to the prevalence of early‐season floods in the Sierra Nevada. In the Feather River Watershed, historical warming increased runoff by over one third during the period of heaviest precipitation in February 2017. This suggests that historical anthropogenic warming may have exacerbated runoff conditions underlying the Oroville Dam spillway overflow that occurred in this month. As warming continues in the future, the potential for runoff‐based flood risk may rise even higher.
California’s Sierra Nevada is a high-elevation mountain range with significant seasonal snow cover. Under anthropogenic climate change, amplification of the warming is expected to occur at elevations near snow margins due to snow albedo feedback. However, climate change projections for the Sierra Nevada made by global climate models (GCMs) and statistical downscaling methods miss this key process. Dynamical downscaling simulates the additional warming due to snow albedo feedback. Ideally, dynamical downscaling would be applied to a large ensemble of 30 or more GCMs to project ensemble-mean outcomes and intermodel spread, but this is far too computationally expensive. To approximate the results that would occur if the entire GCM ensemble were dynamically downscaled, a hybrid dynamical–statistical downscaling approach is used. First, dynamical downscaling is used to reconstruct the historical climate of the 1981–2000 period and then to project the future climate of the 2081–2100 period based on climate changes from five GCMs. Next, a statistical model is built to emulate the dynamically downscaled warming and snow cover changes for any GCM. This statistical model is used to produce warming and snow cover loss projections for all available CMIP5 GCMs. These projections incorporate snow albedo feedback, so they capture the local warming enhancement (up to 3°C) from snow cover loss that other statistical methods miss. Capturing these details may be important for accurately projecting impacts on surface hydrology, water resources, and ecosystems.
Sierra Nevada climate and snowpack is simulated during the period of extreme drought from 2011 to 2015 and compared to an identical simulation except for the removal of the twentieth century anthropogenic warming. Anthropogenic warming reduced average snowpack levels by 25%, with middle‐to‐low elevations experiencing reductions between 26 and 43%. In terms of event frequency, return periods associated with anomalies in 4 year 1 April snow water equivalent are estimated to have doubled, and possibly quadrupled, due to past warming. We also estimate effects of future anthropogenic warmth on snowpack during a drought similar to that of 2011–2015. Further snowpack declines of 60–85% are expected, depending on emissions scenario. The return periods associated with future snowpack levels are estimated to range from millennia to much longer. Therefore, past human emissions of greenhouse gases are already negatively impacting statewide water resources during drought, and much more severe impacts are likely to be inevitable.
Using hybrid dynamical–statistical downscaling, 3-km-resolution end-of-twenty-first-century runoff timing changes over California’s Sierra Nevada for all available global climate models (GCMs) from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) are projected. All four representative concentration pathways (RCPs) adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report are examined. These multimodel, multiscenario projections allow for quantification of ensemble-mean runoff timing changes and an associated range of possible outcomes due to both intermodel variability and choice of forcing scenario. Under a “business as usual” forcing scenario (RCP8.5), warming leads to a shift toward much earlier snowmelt-driven surface runoff in 2091–2100 compared to 1991–2000, with advances of as much as 80 days projected in the 35-model ensemble mean. For a realistic “mitigation” scenario (RCP4.5), the ensemble-mean change is smaller but still large (up to 30 days). For all plausible forcing scenarios and all GCMs, the simulated changes are statistically significant, so that a detectable change in runoff timing is inevitable. Even for the mitigation scenario, the ensemble-mean change is approximately equivalent to one standard deviation of the natural variability at most elevations. Thus, even when greenhouse gas emissions are curtailed, the runoff change is climatically significant. For the business-as-usual scenario, the ensemble-mean change is approximately two standard deviations of the natural variability at most elevations, portending a truly dramatic change in surface hydrology by the century’s end if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.
Future snowfall and snowpack changes over the mountains of Southern California are projected using a new hybrid dynamical–statistical framework. Output from all general circulation models (GCMs) in phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project archive is downscaled to 2-km resolution over the region. Variables pertaining to snow are analyzed for the middle (2041–60) and end (2081–2100) of the twenty-first century under two representative concentration pathway (RCP) scenarios: RCP8.5 (business as usual) and RCP2.6 (mitigation). These four sets of projections are compared with a baseline reconstruction of climate from 1981 to 2000. For both future time slices and scenarios, ensemble-mean total winter snowfall loss is widespread. By the mid-twenty-first century under RCP8.5, ensemble-mean winter snowfall is about 70% of baseline, whereas the corresponding value for RCP2.6 is somewhat higher (about 80% of baseline). By the end of the century, however, the two scenarios diverge significantly. Under RCP8.5, snowfall sees a dramatic further decline; 2081–2100 totals are only about half of baseline totals. Under RCP2.6, only a negligible further reduction from midcentury snowfall totals is seen. Because of the spread in the GCM climate projections, these figures are all associated with large intermodel uncertainty. Snowpack on the ground, as represented by 1 April snow water equivalent is also assessed. Because of enhanced snowmelt, the loss seen in snowpack is generally 50% greater than that seen in winter snowfall. By midcentury under RCP8.5, warming-accelerated spring snowmelt leads to snow-free dates that are about 1–3 weeks earlier than in the baseline period.
A new hybrid statistical–dynamical downscaling technique is described to project mid- and end-of-twenty-first-century local precipitation changes associated with 36 global climate models (GCMs) in phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project archive over the greater Los Angeles region. Land-averaged precipitation changes, ensemble-mean changes, and the spread of those changes for both time slices are presented. It is demonstrated that the results are similar to what would be produced if expensive dynamical downscaling techniques were instead applied to all GCMs. Changes in land-averaged ensemble-mean precipitation are near zero for both time slices, reflecting the region’s typical position in the models at the node of oppositely signed large-scale precipitation changes. For both time slices, the intermodel spread of changes is only about 0.2–0.4 times as large as natural interannual variability in the baseline period. A caveat to these conclusions is that interannual variability in the tropical Pacific is generally regarded as a weakness of the GCMs. As a result, there is some chance the GCM responses in the tropical Pacific to a changing climate and associated impacts on Southern California precipitation are not credible. It is subjectively judged that this GCM weakness increases the uncertainty of regional precipitation change, perhaps by as much as 25%. Thus, it cannot be excluded that the possibility that significant regional adaptation challenges related to either a precipitation increase or decrease would arise. However, the most likely downscaled outcome is a small change in local mean precipitation compared to natural variability, with large uncertainty on the sign of the change.
Changes to mean and extreme wet season precipitation over California on interannual time scales are analyzed using twenty-first-century precipitation data from 34 global climate models. Models disagree on the sign of projected changes in mean precipitation, although in most models the change is very small compared to historical and simulated levels of interannual variability. For the 2020/21–2059/60 period, there is no projected increase in the frequency of extremely dry wet seasons in the ensemble mean. Wet extremes are found to increase to around 2 times the historical frequency, which is statistically significant at the 95% level. Stronger signals emerge in the 2060/61–2099/2100 period. Across all models, extremely dry wet seasons are roughly 1.5 to 2 times more common, and wet extremes generally triple in their historical frequency (statistically significant). Large increases in precipitation variability in most models account for the modest increases to dry extremes. Increases in the frequency of wet extremes can be ascribed to equal contributions from increased variability and increases to the mean. These increases in the frequency of interannual precipitation extremes will create severe water management problems in a region where coping with large interannual variability in precipitation is already a challenge. Evidence from models and observations is examined to understand the causes of the low precipitation associated with the 2013/14 drought in California. These lines of evidence all strongly indicate that the low 2013/14 wet season precipitation total can be very likely attributed to natural variability, in spite of the projected future changes in extremes.
Changes in wintertime 10 m winds due to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation are examined using a 6 km resolution climate simulation of Southern California covering the period from 1959 through 2001. Wind speed statistics based on regional averages reveal a general signal of increased mean wind speeds and wind speed variability during El Niño across the region. An opposite and nearly as strong signal of decreased wind speed variability during La Niña is also found. These signals are generally more significant than the better-known signals in precipitation. In spite of these regional-scale generalizations, there are significant sub-regional mesoscale structures in the wind speed impacts. In some cases, impacts on mean winds and wind variability at the sub-regional scale are opposite to those of the region as a whole. All of these signals can be interpreted in terms of shifts in occurrences of the region’s main wind regimes due to the El Niño phenomenon. The results of this study can be used to understand how interannual wind speed variations in regions of Southern California are influenced by the El Niño phenomenon.
Projections of possible precipitation change in California under global warming have been subject to considerable uncertainty because California lies between the region anticipated to undergo increases in precipitation at mid-to-high latitudes and regions of anticipated decrease in the subtropics. Evaluation of the large-scale model experiments for phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) suggests a greater degree of agreement on the sign of the winter (December–February) precipitation change than in the previous such intercomparison, indicating a greater portion of California falling within the increased precipitation zone. While the resolution of global models should not be relied on for accurate depiction of topographic rainfall distribution within California, the precipitation changes depend substantially on large-scale shifts in the storm tracks arriving at the coast. Significant precipitation increases in the region arriving at the California coast are associated with an eastward extension of the region of strong Pacific jet stream, which appears to be a robust feature of the large-scale simulated changes. This suggests that effects of this jet extension in steering storm tracks toward the California coast constitute an important factor that should be assessed for impacts on incoming storm properties for high-resolution regional model assessments.