Increased winter snowmelt threatens western water resources

University of Colorado, Boulder

More snow is melting during winter across the West, a concerning trend that could impact everything from ski conditions to fire danger and agriculture, according to a new CU Boulder analysis of 40 years of data.

Researchers found that since the late 1970s, winter’s boundary with spring has been slowly disappearing, with one-third of 1,065 snow measurement stations from the Mexican border to the Alaskan Arctic recording increasing winter snowmelt. While stations with significant melt increases have recorded them mostly in November and March, the researchers found that melt is increasing in all cold season months—from October to March.

Their new findings, published today in Nature Climate Change, have important implications for water resource planning and may indicate fewer pristine powder days and crustier snow for skiers.

“Particularly in cold mountain environments, snow accumulates over the winter—it grows and grows—and gets to a point where it reaches a maximum depth, before melt starts in the spring,” said Keith Musselman, lead author on the study and research associate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research(INSTAAR) at CU Boulder.

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