Despite recent storms sweeping across much of the northern U.S. faces a ton of snow shortage. This situation raises concerns among climatologists and environmentalists due to its potential impact on water supplies, wildfire risks, and the ski industry, especially in the western states.
The winter season had a sluggish start, with little to no snowfall in many areas through early January, contributing to the scenario where the U.S. faces a ton of snow shortage. Dan McEvoy, a regional climatologist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, highlights that the situation is one of playing catch-up. Data from around 800 monitoring stations in the West show that over 90% report snow accumulations below the median for this time of year. Such widespread below-average measurements are uncommon and point to an unusual trend.
In western states, the snowpack size directly influences water availability for agriculture, the intensity of the upcoming wildfire season, and the power generation capacity of hydropower dams. The impact of climate change, which is expected to reduce snowpack, exacerbates these concerns. A study published in Nature warns that many of the world’s most populous basins are on the verge of rapid snow declines, which could dramatically reshape water supplies for over two billion people.
Quantifying snowpack, the amount of water stored as snow, presents challenges due to its variability and the difficulty in measurement. Researchers Justin Mankin and Alexander Gottlieb from Dartmouth University analyzed snowpack in 169 river basins across the Northern Hemisphere. They found significant declines in key basins and attributed these changes to human-induced global warming. Mankin warns that the loss of snowpack can accelerate rapidly, leaving regions unprepared.
Recent storms, impacting 164 million people in the U.S., have increased the snow-covered area from 20% to about 45% of the continental U.S. in early January. However, McEvoy cautions that these storms will unlikely reverse the overall snow drought conditions. A ridge of high pressure in December contributed to the dry conditions in the Rockies and the Great Plains, while warm temperatures and rain in other regions further hindered snowpack development.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts a warmer and drier winter for most northern states. This prediction is partly due to a strong El Niño, a pattern linked to warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific. El Niño, combined with the ongoing background warming from climate change, suggests a trend towards warmer conditions, further fueling concerns about the implications of a reduced snowpack.
As the winter season progresses, climatologists and environmental experts monitor the situation closely, with an eye on the potential long-term impacts on water resources, agriculture, and the natural ecosystem.