Disappearing Snow: Understanding local effects of climate change on resilience of social-ecological systems in the U.S. northern Rockies
Land managers and public stakeholders of the U.S. northern Rocky Mountains are increasingly tasked with addressing the direct impacts of our changing climate, such as warming winter temperatures, earlier spring snowmelt, and prolonged dry seasons. These changes have contributed to larger and more frequent wildfires and beetle outbreaks. The influence of these increased impacts on the resilience of coupled social-ecological systems is not well understood.
As a first step in improving understanding, we modeled the effects of projected climate change upon one of the main system drivers, winter snowpack. We mapped the extent and timing of snowpack accumulation using current climate data. Global circulation models allowed us to project ~40 years in the future to evaluate the sensitivity of western snowpack to projected trends in warming. Findings suggest a decrease in the timing of winter snowfall for much of the Rocky Mountains, with the effective length of snow-dominated ‘winter’ changing from ~5 months currently to ~3 months in the future. Similarly, the total area of snow-dominated land within the West decreased into the future, with many areas transitioning into wintertime precipitation dominated by rainfall.
As next steps, we will continue researching the local-scale effects of climate change through both this type of site-specific predictive science and other field-based methodologies. We will present these findings to local communicate to inform them about their potential vulnerability to changing climate. Ultimately, we aim to evaluate the effectiveness of these downscaling methods in enhancing stakeholder’s perceptions about the effects and reality of climate change.