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Title: Antecedent Snowpack Cold Content Alters the Hydrologic Response to Extreme Rain-on-Snow Events

Predicting winter flooding is critical to protecting people and securing water resources in California’s Sierra Nevada. Rain-on-snow (ROS) events are a common cause of widespread flooding and are expected to increase in both frequency and magnitude with anthropogenic climate change in this region. ROS flood severity depends on terrestrial water input (TWI), the sum of rain and snowmelt that reaches the land surface. However, an incomplete understanding of the processes that control the flow and refreezing of liquid water in the snowpack limits flood prediction by operational and research models. We examine how antecedent snowpack conditions alter TWI during 71 ROS events between water years 1981 and 2019. Observations across a 500-m elevation gradient from the Independence Creek catchment were input into SNOWPACK, a one-dimensional, physically based snow model, initiated with the Richards equation and calibrated with collocated snow pillow observations. We compare observed “historical” and “scenario” ROS events, where we hold meteorologic conditions constant but vary snowpack conditions. Snowpack variables include cold content, snow density, liquid water content, and snow water equivalent. Results indicate that historical events with TWI > rain are associated with the largest observed streamflows. A multiple linear regression analysis of scenario events suggests that TWI is sensitive to interactions between snow density and cold content, with denser (>0.30 g cm−3) and colder (<−0.3 MJ of cold content) snowpacks retaining >50 mm of TWI. These results highlight the importance of hydraulic limitations in dense snowpacks and energy limitations in warm snowpacks for retaining liquid water that would otherwise be available as TWI for flooding.

Significance Statement

The purpose of this study is to understand how the snowpack modulates quantities of water that reach the land surface during rain-on-snow (ROS) events. While the amount of near-term storm rainfall is reasonably predicted by meteorologists, major floods associated with ROS are more difficult to predict and are expected to increase in frequency. Our key findings are that liquid water inputs to the land surface vary with snowpack characteristics, and although many hydrologic models incorporate snowpack cold content and density to some degree, the complexity of ROS events justifies the need for additional observations to improve operational forecasting model results. Our findings suggest additional comparisons between existing forecasting models and those that physically represent the snowpack, as well as field-based observations of cold content and density and liquid water content, would be useful follow-up investigations.

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Author(s) / Creator(s):
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Publisher / Repository:
American Meteorological Society
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Journal of Hydrometeorology
Medium: X Size: p. 1825-1846
["p. 1825-1846"]
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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