Quantifying the crucial role of snow in supplying human water demand

Monday, 15 December 2014: 10:20 AM
Justin S Mankin, Stanford University, Los Altos Hills, CA, United States, Daniel Viviroli, University of Zurich, Department of Geography, Zurich, Switzerland, Mesfin M Mekonnen, University of Twente, Deptartment of Water Engineering & Management, Enschede, Netherlands, Arjen Y. Y. Hoekstra, University of Twente, Enschede, 7500, Netherlands and Noah S Diffenbaugh, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, United States
Snow is considered essential to ecosystems, people, and climate, regulating water availability by mediating runoff and soil moisture throughout the year, and altering planetary radiative balance. Like canary in a coalmine, snow also serves as a kind of sentinel system, providing a benchmark by which we can measure the advance of global warming. Yet recent analyses reveal that the relationship between snow and warming is more complex: Despite warming, for example, the magnitude of internal climate variability suggests some Northern Hemisphere regions may experience snow increases for at least the next 50 years. While studies demonstrate that snow supply is vital and in critical danger, such assessments are based only on projections of annualized supply-side changes, such as the fraction of total annual runoff coming from snowfall. These measures do not consider a region’s unique seasonal patterns of water supply and, in particular, water demand. We therefore do not know snow’s relative importance to each region’s water supply portfolio, and thus how great a risk global warming presents to regional water availability. Here we present the first quantification of snow’s observed role in fulfilling monthly water demand for people in the Northern Hemisphere given each basin’s unique sub-annual patterns of snow accumulation and melt. This quantification also reconciles the requirements of ecosystems and includes the buffering capacity of existing artificial storage, such as dams and reservoirs. Our results provide a meaningful baseline against which projected snow changes (from global warming) or demand changes (from population or land-use change) can be evaluated to identify regions at acute risk of disequilibria between future snow water supply and its demand.