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Report: Warming Could Impact Water Supplies in Western States

A warming planet could put water supplies at risk for Rocky Mountain states. (Hamid Soufi/Wikimedia Commons)
A warming planet could put water supplies at risk for Rocky Mountain states. (Hamid Soufi/Wikimedia Commons)
January 25, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Surface temperatures across the globe in 2015 were the warmest since modern recordkeeping began in 1880, according to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred since the new century began.

Noah Diffenbaugh is an associate professor at Stanford University and senior author of a report on how warming can affect snowpack. He says if temperatures continue to rise, western states could see diminishing water supplies.

"As more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, and as more of the snow that does fall melts earlier in the winter and spring, that has big implications for water storage," he explains.

Diffenbaugh says snow is important for Rocky Mountain states in particular because it forms its own reservoir. And when snow melts gradually, lower areas get water during spring and summer growing seasons, when human demand peaks. But he says global warming is upsetting this convenient balance.

The report found once-permanent snowfields are disappearing in the Rocky Mountains from Colorado to northern Montana, and warns that water managers may need to prepare for a world where the snow reservoir no longer exists.

Diffenbaugh says diminishing snowpack also could have broader consequences.

"Not only is there less water available during the summer for people and agriculture, but also ecosystems are stressed,” he explains. “We know that wildfires – wildfire risk – is elevated."

Diffenbaugh says without the protection of snow, land managers could see more fires earlier in the year.

Loss of snow also would impact food sources for wildlife, and the report suggests native trout that depend on a steady flow of cold water in the summer could face extinction.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY