Snowpack is a large mass of snow that is compressed and hardened by its own weight. It is especially common at high altitudes where there are large quantities of snow and little interference from animals and humans. In the midwestern United States, mountain snowpack can provide much of the water needed for agriculture in the surrounding area. Snowpack can be an invaluable reservoir of water during the winter and is released to the surrounding lower land throughout the spring and summer. It is estimated that 80% of snowpack melt is utilized in agriculture, but with changing climate and an increased variability in the amount of mountain snowpack from year-to-year, it can be difficult for farmers and communities to predict how much snowpack runoff they will be able to utilize in the upcoming year.
Besides warm season water supply, snowpack runoff can also influence factors such as ecology and wildfires. In many areas surrounding mountain ranges, animals also depend on water from snowpack runoff. During years when there is little mountain snowpack, lower lying areas near mountains can suffer droughts. Droughts can be harmful to wild animals and plants, agricultural yield, and can greatly increase the chances of wildfire.
Local weather forecasts that give us the weather up to two weeks in the future are easily accessible and fairly accurate. They can be used to plan vacations or to choose what day of the week to go hiking. Scientists can also predict climate trends at scales of tens to hundreds of years which is how the current warming trend was first discovered. It is a little more tricky make accurate predictions at the seasonal level (months to two years).
The NOAA is working on developing a modelling technique that can better predict seasonal mountain snowpack volumes at an eight month scale. Using observations, climate indices, and a variety of models and equations ran on the NOAA’s two massive supercomputers, the team was able to develop a physically-based dynamic system that made the most accurate snowpack volume predictions to date. The system made more accurate predictions than the statistical models that are currently used. Predictions were made on July 1st and had accurate values for March snowpack. The team was able to obtain accurate values in all areas tested, except for the Southern Sierra Nevada because of hydroclimate variability. The team is motivated by the Sierra Nevada shortcomings and are continuing to test further models and equations to increase accuracy.
Being able to predict snowpack volumes will allow scientists, farmers, and communities to better predict streamflow and adjust their water usage accordingly. On a large scale, scientists will be able to better predict areas of drought and potentially even areas at risk of wildfire far before they show signs of drying. At a smaller scale, it will be easier for farmers to decide what, where, and when to plant which could save them time and money, as well as increasing their crop yield. With a little more development, this system has the potential to prevent water from being used unnecessarily which is of increasing importance in today’s changing climate.
What are some other measurements scientists have made that could help us prepare for potential future changes in climate?
Latest posts by Jackson Chambers (see all)
- “Plant Tattoo” Could Help Develop Drought-Resistant Crops - March 7, 2018
- Using Snowpack to Predict Precipitation Months in Advance - February 9, 2018