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Small Changes in Temperature Have Big Impact on Alaska's Snowpack

Alaska relies on snowpack. The amount of snowpack and when it melts determines the availability of water, the viability of hydropower, and the reliability of transportation in remote regions. It impacts salmon streams, and therefore subsistence, sport, and commercial fishing. Reduced snowpack can also mean more severe wildfires, reduced hunting success, and a big hit to the recreational economy.

What: 

Alaska is warming and precipitation patterns are changing, with more precipitation falling as rain than snow. This has equated to reduced snowpack and earlier spring snowmelt. While we are already seeing these changes, our ability to model future snowpack conditions in Alaska, at a scale that is useful for decision-makers, has been limited. To address this need, researchers took global climate models and developed local projections of temperature, rain, and snow to explore how future snowpack might change – based on how the climate is expected to change. 

Findings: 

Results show that spring snowpack is expected to decrease on average by 20-30% in lower elevation and coastal areas, while it could increase by 5-10% in the highest mountains. These findings underscore how small increases in temperature can lead to significant decreases in snowpack in the parts of the state where human and economic activity are concentrated.

Significance: 

Understanding how snowpack conditions might change allows resource managers to more effectively plan for the future. Information from this study is already being used to understand how watersheds might change, to better predict access to and success of subsistence hunting, and to assess future wolf-deer interactions. The results have even proven valuable in discussions with the Department of Defense regarding the potential impacts of climate change on DOD facilities, safety and hazards, training, and flight operations in Alaska.

"Initially, scientists in the state indicated they could not provide us a reasonable estimate of how snow might change. The Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center changed that narrative, and our vulnerability assessment, along with the way managers are thinking about snow, was changed substantially by the resulting analysis.”  - Greg Hayward, USFS wildlife ecologist who used the results to inform the Chugach National Forest Climate Vulnerability Assessment

Who:

Project Lead: Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center
Partners: Chugach National Forest, Alaska
Stakeholders: Chugach National Forest, Alaska | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service | Alaska Department of Fish and Game | Tongass National Forest | National Park Service | Defenders of Wildlife | U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station | Department of Defense

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