The Response of Northern Hemisphere Snow Cover to a Changing Climate

TitleThe Response of Northern Hemisphere Snow Cover to a Changing Climate
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsBrown, R. D., and P. W. Mote
Date PublishedApr

A snowpack model sensitivity study, observed changes of snow cover in the NOAA satellite dataset, and snow cover simulations from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 3 (CMIP3) multimodel dataset are used to provide new insights into the climate response of Northern Hemisphere (NH) snow cover. Under conditions of warming and increasing precipitation that characterizes both observed and projected climate change over much of the NH land area with seasonal snow cover, the sensitivity analysis indicated snow cover duration (SCD) was the snow cover variable exhibiting the strongest climate sensitivity, with sensitivity varying with climate regime and elevation. The highest snow cover-climate sensitivity was found in maritime climates with extensive winter snowfall-for example, the coastal mountains of western North America (NA). Analysis of trends in snow cover duration during the 1966-2007 period of NOAA data showed the largest decreases were concentrated in a zone where seasonal mean air temperatures were in the range of -5 degrees to +5 degrees C that extended around the midlatitudinal coastal margins of the continents. These findings were echoed by the climate models that showed earlier and more widespread decreases in SCD than annual maximum snow water equivalent (SWEmax), with the zone of earliest significant decrease located over the maritime margins of NA and western Europe. The lowest SCD-climate sensitivity was observed in continental interior climates with relatively cold and dry winters, where precipitation plays a greater role in snow cover variability. The sensitivity analysis suggested a potentially complex elevation response of SCD and SWEmax to increasing temperature and precipitation in mountain regions as a result of nonlinear interactions between the duration of the snow season and snow accumulation rates.