Snowfall and Global Warming: Less Snow May Cause Rivers to Go Dry

By Shweta Iyer on May 18, 2014 1:07 PM EDT

snow
Snowfall contributes water to nearby water sources, but as global warming reduces the occurrence of snow, these rivers may go dry. (Photo: Paul Harbarth, CC BY 2.0)

Seasonal snow is as important as seasonal rain. When it covers the ground, it not only regulates the Earth's temperature, but the snow that melts, known as snow melt, is an important source of water for rivers and lakes in many regions of the world. A new study by researchers at the University of Bristol shows how this precipitation greatly affects the amount of water flowing through rivers in these regions. If climate change reduces the amount of snowfall, the amount of water in reservoirs will also lessen. 

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The researchers conducted a comparative analysis on the effect of snowfall on water levels over several years, throughout hundreds of river basins across the United States. Their study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The effect of snowfall in the rivers of snowy areas has been difficult to gather, due to associated geographical complexities. Earlier studies measured only the seasonal snowfall and how it affected stream flow, or the amount of water in a river at one particular time of the year. These studies did not consider the importance of snowfall on the average stream flow, which was the goal of the current study.

The researchers collected data from 420 catchments located throughout the United States to prove their theory that snowfall is a major determinant of the average river discharge.

Climate change due to human activity has caused temperatures around the world to increase. These effects have been felt on snow-affected catchments, where a temperature rise of even two degrees Celsius has significantly reduced the amount of snow falling in these parts. The new research suggests that the amount of water in rivers will be reduced as a result of the decrease in snow.

"With more than one-sixth of the Earth's population depending on meltwater for their water supply, and ecosystems that can be sensitive to streamflow alterations, the socio-economic consequences of a reduction in streamflow can be substantial," the researchers said in a press release. "Our finding is particularly relevant to regions where societally important functions, such [as] ecosystem stability, hydropower, irrigation, and industrial or domestic water supply are derived from snowmelt."

The new record of snowmelt will help administrators in these areas determine if each year's snowmelt will provide enough water in nearby bodies of water to sustain dry crops and thirsty people. Further research is also needed to tackle the consequences of a precipitation shift from snow to rain, due to rising temperatures.

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