Climate variability and snow pack in the Sierra Nevada

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Cayan, D. R.
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An important part of the water supply in California and the western United States is derived from runoff fed by mountain snow melt. Snow accumulation responds to both precipitation and temperature variations, and forms an interesting climatic index, since it integrates these influences over the entire late fall-spring period. The study area includes the Sierra Nevada, which accumulates most of the snow pack and comprises a major portion of the water-bearing region of California. The purpose of this study is to shed light upon the link between climate and year-to-year variability in the snow pack. Specifically, we wanted to determine (a) the dependence of snow pack and streamflow upon natural climate variability, and (b) if the relationships linking snow and streamflow to climate variations are stable over the history of instrumental records by using pre-1948 historical records to test the results from 1948-present. The basis of the study will be several long series of historical observations containing observed variability over daily-toseasonal time scales. Our focus is on measurements on/around April 1, when snow accumulation is typically greatest. The primary data is from a network of mountainous snow courses; many have records of six decades or more. For any given year, the spring snow water equivalent (SWE) anomaly at a particular snow course is likely to be 25-60% of its long-term average. Although effects vary with region and with elevation, in general, the anomalous winter precipitation has the strongest influence on spring SWE fluctuations. Anomalous temperature has a weaker effect overall, but it has great influence in lower elevations such as in the coastal Northwest, and during spring in higher elevations. Patterns of the precipitation, temperature, and snow anomalies extend over broad regional areas, much larger than individual watersheds. These surface anomalies are organized by the atmospheric circulation, with primary anomaly centers over the North Pacific Ocean as well as over western North America. For most of the regions, anomalously low SWE is associated with a winter circulation resembling the PNA pattern. With a strong low in the central North Pacific and high pressure over the Pacific Northwest, this pattern diverts North Pacific storms northward, away from the region. Both warm and cool phases of ENSO tend to produce regional patterns with out-of-phase SWE anomalies in the Northwest and the Southwest.


Cayan, D. R. 1994. Climate variability and snow pack in the Sierra Nevada. University of California Water Resources Center.