In the Sierra Nevada, seasonal snow represents a critical component of California’s water resource infrastructure in that it affords reliable water during otherwise arid summers. Complex spatial, seasonal and inter-annual snowmelt patterns determine when and where that meltwater is available. Our knowledge of snowmelt dynamics is typically limited to what we can infer from sparse, point-scale snow measurement stations. Limitations such as these motivate the use of numerical snowmelt models. We evaluate the ability of the Alpine3D model system to represent three years of snow dynamics over an 1800 km2 area of Sequoia National Park. The domain spans a 3600 m elevation gradient and ecosystems ranging from semi-arid grasslands to massive sequoia stands to alpine tundra. The model results were evaluated against data from a multi-scale measurement campaign that included airborne LiDAR, clusters of snow depth sensors, repeated manual snow surveys, and automated SWE stations. Compared to these measurements, Alpine3D consistently performed well in middle elevation conifer forests; compared to LiDAR data, the mean snow depth error in forested regions was < 2%. The model also simulated the snow disappearance date within two days of that measured by regional automated sensors. At upper elevations, however, the model tended to overestimate SWE by 50% to as much as 100% in some areas and the errors were linearly correlated (R2 > 0.80, p<0.01) with the distance of the SWE measurements from the nearest precipitation gauge used to derive the model forcing. The results suggest that Alpine3D is highly accurate during the melt season and that precipitation uncertainty may be a critical limitation on snow model accuracy. Finally, an analysis of seasonal and inter-annual snowmelt patterns highlighted distinct melt differences between lower, middle, and upper elevations. Snowmelt was generally most frequent (70% - 95% of the snow-covered season) at the lower elevations where snow cover was episodic and seasonal mean melt rates computed on days when melt was simulated were generally low (< 3 mm day-1). At upper elevations, melt occurred during less than 65% of the snow-covered period, occurred later in the season and mean melt rates were the highest of the region (> 6 mm day-1). Middle elevations remained continuously snow covered throughout the winter and early spring, were prone to frequent but intermittent melt, and provided the most sustained period of seasonal mean snowmelt (~ 5 mm day-1). The melt dynamics (e.g. timing and melt rate) unique to these middle elevations may be critical to the local forest ecosystem. Furthermore, the three years evaluated in this study indicate a marked sensitivity of this elevation range to seasonal meteorology, suggesting that it could be highly sensitive to future changes in climate.
Musselman, K.N., Molotch, N.P. and Margulis, S.A. (2012): Seasonal and inter-annual snowmelt patterns in the southern Sierra Nevada, California (Invited). Fall meeting, American Geophysical Union, December 2012. Abstract C32B-04..