Perspectives on the causes of exceptionally low 2015 snowpack in the western United States (English)

In: Geophysical Research Letters   ;  43 ,  20  ;  10,980-10,988  ;  2016

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Augmenting previous papers about the exceptional 2011–2015 California drought, we offer new perspectives on the “snow drought” that extended into Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2015. Over 80% of measurement sites west of 115°W experienced record low snowpack in 2015, and we estimate a return period of 400–1000 years for California's snowpack under the questionable assumption of stationarity. Hydrologic modeling supports the conclusion that 2015 was the most severe on record by a wide margin. Using a crowd‐sourced superensemble of regional climate model simulations, we show that both human influence and sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies contributed strongly to the risk of snow drought in Oregon and Washington: the contribution of SST anomalies was about twice that of human influence. By contrast, SSTs and humans appear to have played a smaller role in creating California's snow drought. In all three states, the anthropogenic effect on temperature exacerbated the snow drought.

Drought is often misunderstood as simply a deficiency of precipitation. In 2015, a widespread “snow drought” hit the westernmost states: over 80% of measurement sites west of 115°W experienced record low spring snowpack in 2015, breaking records set in 1977 after an exceptionally dry winter. By contrast, the snow drought of 2015 arose primarily from unusually high temperatures, though the unusually dry winter in California contributed there. With the help of thousands of volunteers who ran a climate model on their personal computers, we tested the influence of the specific pattern of ocean temperatures in 2014–15 (especially the “blob” of warm water off the Northwest coast) and found that the ocean temperatures contributed to the Northwest's snow drought but not California's. In both places, but especially the Northwest, greenhouse gases contributed to the warm winter and to the snow drought.

In the 2012‐2015 west coast drought, unusually high temperatures played a prominent role in reducing snow accumulation and causing drought In much of the westernmost U.S., April snowpack was at its lowest ever in 2015 Crowd‐sourced climate modeling shows that greenhouse gases and SST patterns did more to cause drought in the Northwest than in California

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