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.
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.