Snowpack and runoff response to climate change in Owens Valley and Mono Lake watersheds

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Springer Netherlands


Precipitation from the Eastern Sierra Nevada watersheds of Owens Lake and Mono Lake is one of the main water sources for Los Angeles’ over 4 million people, and plays a major role in the ecology of Mono Lake and of these watersheds. We use the Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) hydrologic model at daily time scale, forced by climate projections from 16 global climate models under greenhouse gas emissions scenarios B1 and A2, to evaluate likely hydrologic responses in these watersheds for 1950–2099. Comparing climate in the latter half of the 20th Century to projections for 2070–2099, we find that all projections indicate continued temperature increases, by 2–5 °C, but differ on precipitation changes, ranging from −24 % to +56 %. As a result, the fraction of precipitation falling as rain is projected to increase, from a historical 0.19 to a range of 0.26–0.52 (depending on the GCM and emission scenario), leading to earlier timing of the annual hydrograph’s center, by a range of 9–37 days. Snowpack accumulation depends on temperature and even more strongly on precipitation due to the high elevation of these watersheds (reaching 4,000 m), and projected changes for April 1 snow water equivalent range from −67 % to +9 %. We characterize the watershed’s hydrologic response using variables integrated in space over the entire simulated area and aggregated in time over 30-year periods. We show that from the complex dynamics acting at fine time scales (seasonal and sub-seasonal) simple dynamics emerge at this multi-year time scale. Of particular interest are the dynamic effects of temperature. Warming anticipates hydrograph timing, by raising the fraction of precipitation falling as rain, reducing the volume of snowmelt, and initiating snowmelt earlier. This timing shift results in the depletion of soil moisture in summer, when potential evapotranspiration is highest. Summer evapotranspiration losses are limited by soil moisture availability, and as a result the watershed’s water balance at the annual and longer scales is insensitive to warming. Mean annual runoff changes at base-of-mountain stations are thus strongly determined by precipitation changes.