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Drought Will Become Less Predictable As Snowpack Diminishes, Study Finds

In much of the West, snowpack levels have historically been one of the more reliable ways to determine whether a drought was coming. But a new study says climate change could soon make snowpack data much less reliable.

In the Western United States, “as much as 75% of freshwater originates as snow,” according to the report, published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“If that number comes down, then that’s just going to mean knowledge of snow is going to be less valuable,” said Ben Livneh, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the lead author of the study.

As temperatures increase with climate change and snow turns to rain, snowpacks will get smaller, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s less water available. Livneh said a lower snowpack means the water might be elsewhere, like in the soil or underground water tables, where it’s harder to accurately assess how much water there is on hand.

The report states these challenges will be more pronounced in low-lying foothill areas.

“The water that would normally run off and reach the stream ends up actually getting evaporated,” Livneh said.

The report also found that by 2050, two-thirds of Western states will see reductions in their ability to predict drought. And by the end of the century, that is expected to affect more than 80% of the West.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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