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Advancing the Science of Climate Change
tion, and other characteristics matter for water management, and all are affected by both short-term climate variability and long-term climate change. Likewise, soils, topography, land cover, precipitation intensity, and other variables influence how much precipitation can be stored for use. Other variables such as level of consumption, pollution, conservation, pricing, distribution, and land use changes are also important for water management decisions. These complex processes prevent any easy conclusions about regional water supplies based solely on climate model-driven projections. Nonetheless, historical and current changes in some variables are becoming clear.
Global Precipitation and Extreme Rainfall Events Are Increasing
In general, changes in precipitation are harder to measure and predict than changes in temperature. Nevertheless, some conclusions and projections are robust. For example, based on the fundamental properties and dynamics of the climate system, it is expected that the intensity of the global water cycle and of precipitation extremes (droughts and extremely heavy precipitation events) should both increase as the planet warms. Increases in worldwide precipitation and in the fraction of total precipitation falling in the form of heavy precipitation have already been observed; for example, the fraction of total rainfall falling in the heaviest 1 percent of rain events increased by about 20 percent over the past century in the United States. Climate models project that these trends, which create challenges for flood control and storm and sewer management, are very likely to continue. However, models also indicate a strong seasonality in projected precipitation changes in the United States, with drier summers across much of the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and California, for example.
Snow Cover Is Decreasing
Another robust projection of climate change is that snow and ice cover should decrease as temperatures rise. Worldwide, snow cover is decreasing, although substantial regional variability exists. In the United States, changes in snowpack in the West currently represent the best-documented hydrological manifestation of climate change. The largest losses in snowpack are occurring in the lower elevations of mountains in the Northwest and California, as higher temperatures cause more precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow. Moreover, snowpack is melting as much as 20 days earlier in many areas of the West. Snow is expected to melt even earlier under projections of future climate change, resulting in streams that have reduced flow and higher temperatures in late summer. Such changes have major implications for ecosystems, hydropower, urban and agricultural water supplies, and other uses.