Serious Implications from US Snow Drought?

January 6, 2012; 3:40 PM ET
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The snow drought across the U.S. so far this winter has raised questions about impacts on water supply, ski resorts and agriculture.

Only 22 percent of the nation was covered by snow on Jan. 4, 2012.

A snow depth analysis on Jan. 4 from 2004-2012 reveals the smallest area of the U.S. is covered by snow this year. The year 2007 ranks as the second smallest area of the U.S. with snowcover of about 27 percent.

The Intermountain West, especially the Sierra of California and the mountains of Nevada and Utah, shows a substantial snow drought this year when compared to normal and past years. The northern Plains and the upper Great Lakes are other areas that have little snowcover compared to past years.

This map shows the snow depth from NOHRSC on Jan. 4, 2012, across the U.S.

Snow Drought in the West: Water Supply and Ski Impacts

According to the California Department of Water Resources, a snow survey on Jan. 3, 2012, suggests one of the lowest mountain snowpacks on record for the date.

The statewide snowpack's water content was found to be 19 percent of the Jan. 3 average and only 7 percent of the average April 1 average. The snowpack is usually at its peak early in April before melting in the spring.

Mountain snow that melts in the spring and summer accounts for about 1/3 of the water for California's households, farms and industries reported the California DWR.

"Fortunately, we have most of winter ahead of us, and our reservior storage is good," stated the DWR Director Mark Cowin in a recent press release.

Storm tracks that have allowed for the snow drought in some of the mountains of the West. Expert Senior Meteorologist Ken Clark, who specializes in forecasting the weather in the West, analyzed the snow depth this year in the West compared to normal.

While snowfall amounts have been well below normal this season across the Sierra to the mountains of Utah, snow amounts were above normal across this same area last winter.

"After last year's huge increases in the reservoirs, one year of drought may not bring massive changes in water allocations," explained Clark of the reservoir water storage.

"The weather pattern we have seen for over the last month really does not change noticeably over the next couple of weeks . . . I see no reason why there is much to be optimistic about seeing a major recovery in the snow deficit the rest of the winter."

"The big impact in the short term is on the ski industry," said Clark.

Snow Drought's Agricultural Implications

The lack of snowcover across portions of the Midwest might spell "big trouble" for winter wheat yield later this year.

"If there is an arctic cold outbreak with below-zero temperatures, that could cause big problems for winter wheat, which is planted in the fall and goes dormant in the winter. Subzero cold could cause stunted growth and reduce the production for this year's wheat crop," according to Expert Senior Agricultural Meteorologist Dale Mohler. meteorologists believe that a change in the winter pattern is on the horizon, and more cold waves might penetrate the U.S.

Snowcover actually acts to insulate winter wheat from arctic cold snaps, keeping the soil temperature closer to freezing rather than subzero.

Mohler said the lack of storms and mild weather are the factors that have left winter wheat vulnerable.

Most of the other crops of the Midwest should not be damaged by the lack of snowcover. However, many crops in this region rely on moisture from melting snow during the spring. If there is a snow deficit in the winter followed by a dry spring, that would be bad news for other crops as well.


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