Mid-century ensemble regional climate change scenarios for the Western United States


Leung, L.R., Qian, Y., Bian, X., Washington, W.M., Han, J., Roads, J.O. 2004. Mid-century ensemble regional climate change scenarios for the Western United States. Climatic Change 62:75-113.


To study the impacts of climate change on water resources in the western U.S., global climate simulations were produced using the National Center for Atmospheric Research/Department of Energy (NCAR/DOE) Parallel Climate Model (PCM). The Penn State/NCAR Mesoscale Model (MM5) was used to downscale the PCM control (20 years) and three future (2040-2060) climate simulations to yield ensemble regional climate simulations at 40 km spatial resolution for the western U.S. This paper describes the regional simulations and focuses on the hydroclimate conditions in the Columbia River Basin (CRB) and Sacramento-San Joaquin River (SSJ) Basin.

Results based on global and regional simulations show that by mid-century, the average regional warming of 1 to 2.5 degrees C strongly affects snowpack in the western U.S. Along coastal mountains, reduction in annual snowpack was about 70% as indicated by the regional simulations. Besides changes in mean temperature, precipitation, and snowpack, cold season extreme daily precipitation increased by 5 to 15 mm/day (15-20%) along the Cascades and the Sierra. The warming resulted in increased rainfall at the expense of reduced snowfall, and reduced snow accumulation (or earlier snowmelt) during the cold season.

In the CRB, these changes were accompanied by more frequent rain-onsnow events. Overall, they induced higher likelihood of wintertime flooding and reduced runoff and soil moisture in the summer. Changes in surface water and energy budgets in the CRB and SSJ basin were affected mainly by changes in surface temperature, which were statistically significant at the 0.95 confidence level. Changes in precipitation, while spatially incoherent, were not statistically significant except for the drying trend during summer.

Because snow and runoff are highly sensitive to spatial distributions of temperature and precipitation, this study shows that (1) downscaling provides more realistic estimates of hydrologic impacts in mountainous regions such as the western U.S., and (2) despite relatively small changes in temperature and precipitation, changes in snowpack and runoff can be much larger on monthly to seasonal time scales because the effects of temperature and precipitation are integrated over time and space through various surface hydrological and landatmosphere feedback processes. Although the results reported in this study were derived from an ensemble of regional climate simulations driven by a global climate model that displays low climate sensitivity compared with most other models, climate change was found to significantly affect water resources in the western U.S. by the mid twenty-first century.