In 2015, researchers reported that snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California was at its lowest ever recorded level. But the official record only went back about 80 years.

Tree rings

Trouet: “We’ve been working with tree-ring data from California and we realized that we can reconstruct that snowpack number back to the early 1500s.”

That’s Valerie Trouet of the University of Arizona. From tree rings, she can determine the amount of precipitation and temperature in any given year, allowing her to estimate snowpack.

Trouet and her team found that this past year, the snowpack was the lowest it’s been in 500 years, not just since measurements began in the 1920s and ’30s.

And since climate models forecast that the future will be warmer, Trouet does not expect it to be another 500 years before there is a new record.

Trouet: “If you know that warmer temperatures result in less snowpack because of more precipitation falling as rain, and because of earlier snow melts, then these kind of low snowpacks are likely to occur more frequently in the future than they have in the past.”

So as the climate warms, regions that depend on the Sierra Nevada snowpack for water will need to adapt to the changing conditions.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.
Photo: Copyright protected.

More Resources
An Epic, 500-Year Snow Fail in California’s Iconic Mountains
Study Finds Snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada to Be Lowest in 500 Years
Snowpack In Sierra Nevada At 500-Year Low

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Diana Madson

Diana Madson contributed regularly to Yale Climate Connections from 2014 to 2021. She enjoys exploring U.S.-based stories about unexpected and innovative solutions to climate change. In addition to her...