Scientists Warn: Global Warming Transforms Snowfall into Devastating Mountain Rain

by Madison Thomas
climate change impacts

A recent study has revealed that the warming climate is causing a significant shift in precipitation patterns over mountains, replacing major snowfalls with extreme rain events. This transformation is exacerbating the risks of dangerous flooding, similar to the catastrophic floods that devastated Pakistan last year, as well as contributing to long-term water shortages. Researchers analyzed rainfall and snowfall data dating back to 1950, along with computer simulations of future climate scenarios, and determined that for every degree Fahrenheit of global warming, there is an 8.3% increase in extreme rainfall at higher elevations (15% increase per degree Celsius). These findings were published in the journal Nature.

Scientists emphasized that heavy rain in mountainous regions leads to numerous issues, including flooding, landslides, and erosion, which pose far greater challenges than significant snowfall. Unlike snowpack, which can gradually melt and replenish reservoirs during spring and summer, rainwater flows away rapidly, failing to provide a convenient water supply.

The study’s lead author, Mohammed Ombadi, a hydrologist and climate scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, emphasized that this phenomenon is not a future projection but an observable trend over the past few decades. Ombadi stated, “The data is actually telling us that it’s already happening.”

The research holds critical implications as the world approaches the internationally agreed threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Ombadi emphasized that each degree of warming results in an additional 15% increase in extreme rainfall over mountains, more than double the increase experienced in the rest of the world due to the atmosphere holding more moisture.

The study focused on the most intense precipitation events each year over the past 60 years in the Northern Hemisphere. It revealed that as altitude increases, the intensity of rainfall intensifies as well. The greatest surge in rainfall was observed at approximately 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). This phenomenon affects various regions, including the American West, the Appalachian Mountains, the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Hindu Kush, and the Alps.

According to Ombadi, approximately one in four people on Earth lives in close proximity to mountains or downstream, putting them at risk of extreme rain and subsequent flooding.

The consequences of this transformation are already evident. Ombadi highlighted the similarity between the flooding caused by mountain runoff, resulting from excessive rainfall, and the devastating floods that claimed more than 1,700 lives in Pakistan, submerging one-third of the country. While the researchers did not specifically study the 2022 floods in Pakistan, there are likely to be resemblances.

UCLA climate hydrologist Park Williams, who was not involved in the study, supported its findings, stating, “The implications are serious.” While warmer temperatures are expected to bring increased precipitation, the impact of heavy snowfall on flooding is somewhat mitigated due to the gradual melting process, which allows for better monitoring of snowpack conditions. However, as the proportion of mountain precipitation falling as snow diminishes, the risk of floods can rapidly escalate.

The American West experiences the consequences of this shift in two distinct ways, as explained by study co-author Charuleka Varadharajan, a climate scientist and hydrologist. Extreme rainfall exacerbates flooding while also raising concerns about water management. Varadharajan cited the Tulare Lake flooding in the Sierras as a current example of the serious issues caused by these events.

Moreover, these extreme rain events pose long-term challenges for water supply. Winter snowfall gradually melts and fills reservoirs during spring and summer, ensuring a reliable water source when needed. However, as Varadharajan warned, the decrease in snowfall will reduce future water supplies. This leads to increased short-term runoff, contributing to more frequent floods, while the diminished snowpack fails to replenish groundwater and maintain stream flows.

Given that mountainous systems provide a significant portion of the water supply in the Western region, any reduction in water availability would have profound implications for water management. Water managers currently maintain high reservoir levels during drought periods using snowpacks, as they melt slowly. However, this strategy is ineffective for handling heavy rainfall.

As warming continues to fuel rainier extremes, society faces difficult choices. Water usage may need to be curtailed due to low reservoir levels to accommodate sudden and substantial mountain runoff, or substantial investments may be required to construct additional reservoirs, as explained by Park Williams.

For climate and environment coverage from the Associated Press, visit https://bigbignews.net/climate-and-environment

Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears

The climate and environmental coverage of Big Big News is supported by several private foundations. Learn more about the AP’s climate initiative here. The AP bears sole responsibility for all content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about climate change impacts

What does the study reveal about the impact of global warming on precipitation patterns?

The study reveals that global warming is causing a transformation in precipitation patterns, particularly over mountains, where major snowfalls are being replaced by extreme rain events. This shift worsens the risks of flooding and contributes to long-term water shortages.

How much does extreme rainfall increase with each degree of warming?

According to the study, for every degree Fahrenheit of global warming, extreme rainfall at higher elevations increases by 8.3% (15% per degree Celsius). This indicates a significant intensification of rainfall in mountainous regions as temperatures rise.

What are the consequences of heavy rain in mountainous areas compared to heavy snowfall?

Heavy rain in mountains poses more problems than heavy snowfall. It leads to flooding, landslides, and erosion, which can have severe impacts on communities and infrastructure. Unlike snowpack, rainwater quickly flows away and cannot be conveniently stored for future use.

Which regions are most affected by the transformation of snowfall into extreme rain?

The study highlights several regions affected by this phenomenon, including the American West, the Appalachian Mountains, the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Hindu Kush, and the Alps. These areas experience a notable increase in extreme rainfall, leading to heightened risks of flooding and water management challenges.

How does the transformation of snowfall into extreme rain impact water supply?

In the long term, this transformation reduces water supply. Snowpack typically melts slowly, gradually filling reservoirs during spring and summer. However, with a decrease in snowfall, less water is available for replenishing groundwater and maintaining stream flows. This poses significant challenges for water management and can lead to water shortages.

What choices does society face as rainier extremes continue due to global warming?

As rainier extremes become more prevalent, society faces difficult choices. Water usage may need to be reduced due to low reservoir levels during sudden mountain runoff events caused by heavy rainfall. Alternatively, substantial investments may be necessary to build additional reservoirs that can accommodate and manage these extreme rain events effectively.

More about climate change impacts

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mountainexplorer June 28, 2023 - 8:37 pm

as someone who loves the mountains, this is concerning. heavy rain instead of snow means more floods and less water supply. gonna be a challenge for water management. maybe we need more reservoirs?

curiousmind June 28, 2023 - 10:02 pm

i wonder how this will affect wildlife and ecosystems in mountainous regions. heavy rain and flooding can disrupt their habitats. we need to consider the ecological consequences too!

waterconservationist June 29, 2023 - 2:02 am

this text reminds me of the urgency to conserve water. with water shortages becoming more likely, we need to be mindful of our water consumption and find sustainable practices to ensure future water availability.

climateactivist June 29, 2023 - 2:49 am

this is why we need to take action against climate change! the impacts are already happening. we can’t ignore it anymore. let’s protect our planet and fight for a sustainable future!

naturelover22 June 29, 2023 - 4:05 am

i read abt this in AP’s climate coverage. it’s so sad how heavy rain causes floods, landslides, and erosion. and it’s not like snow that can store water for later. gonna be tough managing water supply in the future.

concernedcitizen June 29, 2023 - 5:08 am

it’s heartbreaking to see the human and economic toll caused by these extreme rain events. we must prioritize the well-being of communities and invest in infrastructure to mitigate the risks posed by climate change.

optimistdreamer June 29, 2023 - 7:35 am

even though this study reveals alarming consequences, it also highlights the importance of adaptation and resilience. we can find innovative ways to manage water resources and minimize the impact of extreme rainfall.

weatherwatcher June 29, 2023 - 7:43 am

this study confirms what scientists have been warning about. global warming is changing precipitation patterns. it’s time to prioritize climate action and find solutions to mitigate these risks.

sciencegeek June 29, 2023 - 6:27 pm

the study shows that for every degree of warming, extreme rainfall increases by 8.3%. that’s a lot! we need to take climate change seriously. it’s not just a future issue, it’s already happening!

user123 June 29, 2023 - 7:18 pm

wow, this study is rlly mind-blowing!! global warming turning snow into rain, so crazy! flooding and water shortages gonna be such a big problem! we gotta do something abt it!


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