Forecast is for more snow in polar regions, less for the rest of us

A new cli­mate model pre­dicts an increase in snow­fall for the Earth’s polar regions and high­est alti­tudes, but an over­all drop in snow­fall for the globe, as car­bon diox­ide lev­els rise over the next century.

The decline in snow­fall could spell trou­ble for regions such as the west­ern United States that rely on snowmelt as a source of fresh water. The pro­jec­tions are the result of a new cli­mate model devel­oped at the National Oceanic and Atmos­pheric Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA) Geo­phys­i­cal Fluid Dynam­ics Lab­o­ra­tory (GFDL) and ana­lyzed by sci­en­tists at GFDL and Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity. The study was pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Climate.

Forecast is for more snow in polar regions, less for the rest of usThe model indi­cates that the major­ity of the planet would expe­ri­ence less snow­fall as a result of warm­ing due to a dou­bling of atmos­pheric car­bon diox­ide. Obser­va­tions show that atmos­pheric car­bon diox­ide has already increased by 40 per­cent from val­ues in the mid-19th cen­tury, and, given pro­jected trends, could exceed twice those val­ues later this cen­tury. In North Amer­ica, the great­est reduc­tions in snow­fall will occur along the north­east coast, in the moun­tain­ous west, and in the Pacific North­west. Coastal regions from Vir­ginia to Maine, as well as coastal Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton, will get less than half the amount of snow cur­rently received.

In very cold regions of the globe, how­ever, snow­fall will rise because as air warms it can hold more mois­ture, lead­ing to increased pre­cip­i­ta­tion in the form of snow. The researchers found that regions in and around the Arc­tic and Antarc­tica will get more snow than they now receive.

The high­est moun­tain peaks in the north­west­ern Himalayas, the Andes and the Yukon region will also receive greater amounts of snow­fall after car­bon diox­ide dou­bles. This find­ing clashes with other mod­els which pre­dicted declines in snow­fall for these high-altitude regions. How­ever, the new model’s pre­dic­tion is con­sis­tent with cur­rent snow­fall obser­va­tions in these regions.

The model is an improve­ment over pre­vi­ous mod­els in that it uti­lizes greater detail about the world’s topog­ra­phy – the moun­tains, val­leys and other fea­tures. This new “high-resolution” model is anal­o­gous to hav­ing a high-definition model of the planet’s cli­mate instead of a blurred picture.

The study was con­ducted by Sarah Kap­nick, a post­doc­toral research sci­en­tist in the Pro­gram in Atmos­pheric and Oceanic Sci­ences at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and jointly affil­i­ated with NOAA’s Geo­phys­i­cal Fluid Dynam­ics Lab­o­ra­tory in Prince­ton, and Thomas Del­worth, senior phys­i­cal sci­en­tist at GFDL.

Read a plain-language sum­mary of the arti­cle on GFDL’s web site.

Read the abstract.

Cita­tion: Kap­nick, Sarah B. and Thomas L. Del­worth, 2013. Con­trols of Global Snow Under a Changed Cli­mate. Jour­nal of Cli­mate.  Early online release pub­lished Feb. 6.–00528.1

This work was sup­ported by the Coop­er­a­tive Insti­tute for Cli­mate Sci­ence, a col­lab­o­ra­tive insti­tute between Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and GFDL.

Substack subscription form sign up
The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.