Document Type

Article

Publication Date

4-13-2016

Publication Title

Environmental Research Letters

ISSN

1748-9326

Volume

11

Issue

4

DOI

http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/044015

Abstract

In snow-dominated mountain regions, a warming climate is expected to alter two drivers of hydrology: (1) decrease the fraction of precipitation falling as snow; and (2) increase surface energy available to drive evapotranspiration. This study uses a novel integrated modeling approach to explicitly separate energy budget increases via warming from precipitation phase transitions from snow to rain in two mountain headwaters transects of the central Rocky Mountains. Both phase transitions and energy increases had significant, though unique, impacts on semi-arid mountain hydrology in our simulations. A complete shift in precipitation from snow to rain reduced streamflow between 11% and 18%, while 4 °C of uniform warming reduced streamflow between 19% and 23%, suggesting that changes in energy-driven evaporative loss, between 27% and 29% for these uniform warming scenarios, may be the dominant driver of annual mean streamflow in a warming climate. Phase changes induced a flashier system, making water availability more susceptible to precipitation variability and eliminating the runoff signature characteristic of snowmelt-dominated systems. The impact of a phase change on mean streamflow was reduced as aridity increased from west to east of the continental divide.

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