Colorado River flow dwindles as warming-driven loss of reflective snow energizes evaporation

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Science  13 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6483, pp. 1252-1255
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay9187

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Evaporating futures

Drought and warming have been shrinking Colorado River flow for many years. Milly and Dunne used a hydrologic model and historical observations to show that this decrease is due mainly to increased evapotranspiration caused by a reduction of albedo from snow loss and the associated rise in the absorption of solar radiation (see the Perspective by Hobbins and Barsugli). This drying will be greater than the projected precipitation increases expected from climate warming, increasing the risk of severe water shortages in an already vulnerable region.

Science, this issue p. 1252; see also p. 1192


The sensitivity of river discharge to climate-system warming is highly uncertain, and the processes that govern river discharge are poorly understood, which impedes climate-change adaptation. A prominent exemplar is the Colorado River, where meteorological drought and warming are shrinking a water resource that supports more than 1 trillion dollars of economic activity per year. A Monte Carlo simulation with a radiation-aware hydrologic model resolves the longstanding, wide disparity in sensitivity estimates and reveals the controlling physical processes. We estimate that annual mean discharge has been decreasing by 9.3% per degree Celsius of warming because of increased evapotranspiration, mainly driven by snow loss and a consequent decrease in reflection of solar radiation. Projected precipitation increases likely will not suffice to fully counter the robust, thermodynamically induced drying. Thus, an increasing risk of severe water shortages is expected.

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