Agricultural Risks to Changing Snowmelt

Snowpacks store cold water in winter, which is later melted in warmer spring months to produce streamflow. Historically, irrigated agriculture has relied on snowmelt runoff as an important seasonal water supply in many regions across the world, such as the western United States.

However, Climate change has already begun to change the spatial and temporal patterns of snowmelt runoff — causing a decreasing magnitude of snowfall and earlier melting of snowpacks. Consequently, irrigated agriculture, which has been depending on snowmelt runoff happening with a certain magnitude, at a specific time, and in a given location, are exposed to potentially important risks under a warming climate.

Although such changes in snowmelt-derived water resources are often cited as a key threat to irrigated agriculture and global food security, previous studies have focused on annual changes in runoff, without resolving the sub-annual changes in water supply and crop-specific water demand.

To characterize such risks, we differentiate surface water supply from three sources: snowmelt runoff, rainfall runoff, and alternative water supply such as inter-basin water transfer. Comparing monthly surface water supply with surface water demand under both the historical climate (1985-2015) and predicted warming scenarios (2°C and 4°C above pre-industrial conditions), we identify where irrigated agriculture has been mostly depending on snowmelt runoff in the past 30 years. Also, we find basins in high-mountain Asia (the Tibetan Plateau), central Asia, central Russia, the western U.S., and the southern Andes are particularly vulnerable to decreasing snowmelt availability in crops’ growing seasons due to a future warming climate.

Therefore, these most risky basins will require increasing additional water supplies by increasing inter-basin transfer, pumping additional groundwater, or consuming water required for other uses. Notably, providing those additional water supplies may sometimes cause additional environmental and social problems, thus improved irrigation practices or crop switching may be needed to ensure food security under changing snowmelt.

Yue Qin

Assistant Professor, Department of Geography

The Ohio State University

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