The amount and timing of the runoff from snowmelt is critical to the success of water management in the western United States. Water resources for the area are reliant on snow acting as a natural reservoir during the cold season that melts and releases water in the warm season.
Changes in this timing could create problems in meeting the increasing demand for water in large urban and agricultural areas during the hottest summer months, Diffenbaugh said.
"If the snow melts earlier or if it comes as rainfall instead, it would create a strain on infrastructure," he said. "The current system relies on water being stored in the mountains as snow. So earlier runoff could mean too much water for the reservoirs early in the year and not enough available later in the year."
Gregg M. Garfin, deputy director for science translation and outreach at the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona, said dry summers could lead to more severe wildfires and changes in the ecosystems of the West.
"Early snowmelt and warmer soil temperatures could result in further massive forest mortality and an increased risk of wildfire activity," Garfin said. "If these projections become reality, then the ecosystems of the northern and central Rockies will undergo dramatic changes with ramifications for wildlife habitat, fire potential, soil erosion and tourism."
The study suggests a substantial change in the runoff season, with the peak date more than two months earlier than today in some regions, Diffenbaugh said.
"During the past 50 years, the peak runoff time has moved 10 to 15 days earlier,
|Contact: Elizabeth K. Gardner|