Study: Sierra Nevada Snowpack will Shrink by 79% by the End of the Century

Kearsarge Lakes, Sequoia National Park

The Sierra Nevada, the iconic mountain range that sits on the east side of Northern California, has been a reliable source of water for much of the state since Gold Rushers settled in California in the 1800’s. But a new study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that we won’t be able to rely on that snowpack for much longer.

The study was published last month in Geophysical Research Letters, in which scientists claim that the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada will shrink by 79 percent by the end of the century if if humans don’t limit greenhouse emissions.

The Sierra Nevada provides approximately one-third of the water for the state of California.

Looking at the forecasted future climate conditions for the upstream sources of the state’s ten largest reservoirs, scientists found that the snowpack could decrease by over 50 percent in 20 to 40 years, with a nearly 80 percent decrease by the end of the 2000’s. The study used five different climate models that assume the continued affects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Mountain ranges in NorCal would be more affected than those in Southern California due to their elevation. The lower mountains of NorCal will see a higher decrease in snowpack in coming years, meaning reservoirs like Shasta, Folsom and Oroville will see a dramatic decrease of over 80 percent of water storage during the snowpack decrease over the next 80 years.

Lake Oroville

The shocking new study suggests that California will need to drastically rethink its approach to managing water over the coming decades. Forecasts show that significant precipitation is still expected to fall on the state, but with warming temperatures, it will come as rain rather than snow. If the study stands true, officials will need to figure out ways to capture the rain before it flows to the Pacific Ocean, while simultaneously controlling flooding dangers.

Needless to say, water storage is going to become very difficult in the coming decades. In the recent years, we’ve seen water officials play the “store enough, but not too much” game, which caused the dangerous and expensive flooding of the Oroville Dam in 2017. The fine-line between holding onto water without flooding is a shrinking window, one that will continue to shrink in the coming century.

Today, water storage issues sit at the center of political debate in California. The argument of building dams, increasing reservoirs sizes and even constructing water tunnels has become heated. It seems it will only get worse over the next decade.

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