The world is approaching a critical climate tipping point, with smaller snowpack leading to severe implications, including droughts and water scarcity, Bloomberg reported, citing Nature. Regions heavily reliant on snow for winter recreation and springtime water supply are the most affected.
Researchers have observed a consistent drop in snowpack across 169 Northern Hemisphere river basins since 1981, with human influence identified in 31 of the areas. The U.S. and Europe are notable for their disappearing snow. This phenomenon, known as “snow drought,” is exacerbated by greenhouse gas pollution causing winter precipitation to fall as rain or not at all. For instance, Northern California’s snowpack stands at only 38% of its average, posing a threat to the state’s significant agricultural industry.
The Nature study highlights a concerning trend: As global temperatures rise, regions with average winter temperatures above -8°C (17°F) become increasingly susceptible to climate change. This tipping point indicates growing instability for crucial water sources. Four-fifths of the Northern Hemisphere’s population lives in areas already exceeding this threshold.
The term “snow drought” has entered the meteorological lexicon, indicating a shift in mountain environments that endangers lives and billions in livelihoods and infrastructure. This concept emerged over the past decade as industries and communities grappled with the implications of less reliable winter precipitation.
Central to understanding snow drought is its impact on water sources. A mere 1°C increase in temperature can reduce early spring snow water storage by 20%. The implications of this sensitivity are profound for ecosystems and drinking water supplies. Notably, a 2020 global analysis of snow drought revealed heightened intensity, length, and frequency of snow droughts in various mountain regions, particularly in the western US, Europe, and eastern Russia.
The variability of snowfall and its impact on water management is a growing concern. In California, for example, the state oscillates between excessive snow and critical shortages, complicating water delivery to residents and agricultural sectors. This unpredictability also affects ecosystems, as less snow cover exposes native plants to harsher conditions, impacting their growth and the habitats of various species.
Understanding and managing snow drought requires collaborative efforts among scientists, engineers, agencies, and users. This collaboration is increasingly vital as regions face more frequent wildfires, exacerbating snow drought conditions. Wildfires destroy tree cover that protects snowpack, and the resulting soot accelerates snow melt.
The report underscores the urgent need for regional and international cooperation in water management, particularly in snowpack-dependent areas. As climate change tips the balance toward more frequent snow droughts, water resource management faces unprecedented challenges, necessitating swift and coordinated action.