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UC Study: Vital Sierra Snowpack Could Slowly Disappear Amid Climate Change

BERKELEY (CBS SF) -- A group of researchers at UC Berkeley's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have come up with a rather frightening future scenario -- climate change could significantly dwindled down the Sierra snowpack, dramatically impacting water supplies in the San Francisco Bay Area.

While the researchers don't believe snow-capped peaks will become a thing of the past, they do think that the deep snowpack that drains off during the spring runoff may shrink considerably.

The results of their study was published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment this month.

"Future mountain snowpacks are further projected to decline, and even disappear, but at unknown rates," the researchers wrote in the article. "While the complete loss of snow is the worst-case scenario, a plausible situation informed by estimates of historical low snow conditions would be a Western United States-wide reduction in seasonal snow."

"The potential for persistent low-to-no snow to disrupt the Western United State water system is substantial, potentially even catastrophic."

Taking into consideration the current climate trends, the researchers conclude that by the late 2040s, half of the area historically covered by snow in the Sierra will likely have "low or no" snow for five straight years.

By the late 2050s, it could be 10 straight years.

"Water storage and conveyance infrastructure was designed and is now managed using spring snowmelt as a central criterion for operations," the researchers said. "These water management decisions are predicated on the assumption of a stationary climate, which is an unintended, yet, critical, oversight."

"Snow loss could be on the order of 20% by mid-century. If carbon emissions continue unabated, so we don't do anything to mitigate carbon emissions moving forward, it could be upwards of 50% by end-century, with the coastal mountain ranges such as the Cascades and Sierra Nevada facing more amplified losses," co-lead author Alan Rhoades said. "Carbon emissions are leading to larger amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Those greenhouse gases create a blanket over the planet. That blanket leads to higher temperatures. The freezing point of water, as I said before, is non-negotiable."

Researchers urge water officials to immediately add the dwindling snowpack to their risk management when considering how to deal with the changing climate and demands for water.

Rhoades tells KPIX 5 the publication of their research will hopefully help shine a light on the importance of preparing for scenarios brought on by climate change, as well as taking steps to mitigate adverse outcomes.

"This is not all doom and gloom. The silver lining is that we know this might occur, and we have time to plan around that occurrence," he said. "We have time to proactively adapt to a low-to-no-snow future. We have plenty of smart folks in academia, water management, in private industry, and also policymakers that are thinking about this."

KPIX 5 spoke with Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Public Police Institute of California's Water Policy Center – a nonpartisan organization that aims to find pragmatic solutions to California's water challenges – about the findings.

"We will probably never be without snow in our mountains, it's just, we're looking at less and less of it, so it's going to become increasingly unreliable," he said. "Climate change is not some future thing. It's happening. Right now. We're seeing it in real time. We're having to learn from it on the fly. So better to prepare for that future rather than to simply react."

Max Darrow contributed to this story.

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