Snowpack Melting at Record Speed

Taylor Hillman Drought, Industry News Release, Water


Far below average snowpack remains in much of the West, peak streamflow early in Pacific Northwest

During April, western snowpack dropped at record speed, according to data from the fifth and final 2016 forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“In the Pacific Northwest, low precipitation and high temperatures led to a dramatic reduction in snowpack,” said NRCS Hydrologist Cara McCarthy. “In this area, peak streamflow is arriving weeks earlier than normal this year.”

Not all areas have low snowpack. “Parts of Wyoming and Colorado have seen much above-average precipitation in recent weeks, causing concerns about potential flooding in the North Platte,” said McCarthy.

May is the last West-wide forecast of the season, but NRCS will continue monitoring conditions throughout the year. Read the full West-wide forecast or view information by state.

In Western states where snowmelt accounts for the majority of seasonal water supply, information about totals serves as an indicator of future water availability. The wildland fire community closely watches snowpack and water supply availability predictions as limited snowpack and the rate of snowmelt are two of the many factors that affect the potential severity of the wildland fire season in the West.

Streamflow in the West consists largely of accumulated mountain snowmelt that flows into streams as temperatures warm in spring and summer. NRCS scientists analyze the snowpack, precipitation, air temperature and other measurements taken from remote sites to develop the water supply forecasts.

NRCS has installed and maintains more than 800 high-elevation weather stations, known as SNOTEL sites. These remote, automated sites transmit hourly updates on snowpack conditions, greatly enhancing data collection and forecast accuracy. All of the data are free and available online.

The water supply forecast, typically issued monthly from January to May, is one of several ways USDA works to improve public awareness and manage the impacts of climate change, including drought and other extreme weather events. Through the National Drought Resilience Partnership offsite link image , federal agencies are working closely with states, tribes and local governments to develop a coordinated response to drought.