The Case of the Disappearing Sierra Snowfall

A new report says snowfall in the Sierra hasn’t shrunk, but not everyone’s buying it

Snow has been sparse in the Sierra Nevada this winter.

There are good years and there are bad years, but overall, snowfall in the Sierra hasn’t declined in the past century. That’s according to a new study by University of Alabama climatologist John Christy (who, it’s worth noting, has come under fire as a climate change denier).

The San Francisco Chronicle had a story about the report, “Searching for information in 133 years of California snowfall observations,” (link is to the abstract; full article is behind a pay wall) in today’s paper:

The analysis of snowfall data in the Sierra going back to 1878 found no more or less snow overall – a result that, on the surface, appears to contradict aspects of recent climate change models.

John Christy, the Alabama state climatologist who authored the study, said the amount of snow in the mountains has not decreased in the past 50 years, a period when greenhouse gases were supposed to have increased the effects of global warming.

Roger Bales, a professor of engineering at UC Merced and director of its Sierra Nevada Research Institute, said this study can’t be used to draw conclusions about climate change.

“(Christy) may have done some appropriate statistical analysis, but the conclusions are stressed beyond what the data will bare. It’s not surprising he didn’t find a trend because he lumped everything together.”

Bales said to detect a change in precipitation patterns from snow to rain, which is an indicator of climate change, the details of the data at specific elevations would be more valuable than all the numbers combined.

The Chronicle also quoted U.S. Geological Survey climatologist Mike Dettinger, who said that water content and density of snow are better measures than snow depth.

Kelly Redmond, a climatologist at the University of Nevada’s Desert Research Institute said he was slightly surprised to see the report, but not floored by it.

“It’s quite natural to say if it’s warming up we’ll see less snow, but in some places because of higher temperatures, we could see more,” he told me. “There’s that famous quote by René Dubos, ‘Trends are not destiny.’ This is a study of what it’s been up to this point. But I’m hesitant to say if it’s been this way, it’s going to stay this way.”


John Christy got in touch, and I asked him to respond to some of the points in this post. I’m copying his response in here.

Snow Water Equivalent (SWE): my recent paper directly addressed that issue and found snowfall a very good proxy for SWE. SWE is a valuable measure of one thing (amount of liquid water in the snowpack on a particular date, which misses the impact of later snowfalls).  SWE is very useful for its purposes, but only a few measurements go back to around 1930. Snowfall is a different metric (my paper) and goes back another 50 years (thanks to a lot of effort on my part) and so has the high added value of length-of-record as well as a metric of great value to define snow amounts as they fall (for recreation, snow clearing, snow-dependent ecology as well as runoff).

The rate of change of snowfall has been modeled to have already shown decreases (in the models). I addressed issues like temperature (Christy et al. 2006) and runoff/precipitation (Christy and Hnilo 2010 attached) … no changes have been found. Thus, models are not doing well in showing what mother nature is doing. It’s always a nice corner to run to by saying “our predictions can’t be tested because they apply only to the future” — the infamous unfalsifiable hypothesis. I test model results for the time over which we have both observations and model results. (My main work is dealing with global temperatures from satellites where it is more straightforward to show model vs. observation disagreement.)

One critical part of the paper was the handling of “missings as zeros,” where non-reports (i.e. missing) had been filled in with zeros since 1970 by someone down the line for many stations. I had to eliminate as many of these as possible — a very tedious process.

I looked at the elevation dependence in the So. Sierra in the last paper. Note that in the past 60 years, most sites showed positive trends, with no dependence on elevation.

Regarding the Calif. Water Report — the blog commenter was comparing very different apples and oranges: the time frame is different in two ways and the quantity itself is very different. In Fig. 2-13 the quantity is only Apr-Jul runoff for the Sacramento Basin only, not total annual runoff of all of the Sierra. The annual runoff (Fig. 2-14 lower and Fig. 2-16 lower) shows precisely what I found — no trend. The time periods are different too — mine go back 30 years more. It looks to me like California will have roughly the same amount of water it has had for the last 100 years — but I know the demand for water is always rising.

The Case of the Disappearing Sierra Snowfall 15 February,2012Molly Samuel

4 thoughts on “The Case of the Disappearing Sierra Snowfall”

  1. Dr Christy submitted his data. Where is the data from those who disagree. Opinions are one thing, fact are another. Where are the fact refuting Dr Christy’s analysis? 

  2. If you torture the numbers enough, meaning break them down into enough tiny subsets and then recombine them, you may be able to get the result you want.  He combined all the numbers, apparently.  It is interesting to note that extensive studies of Sierra snowpack have been done every year by a number of different California water agencies for a long time so that they could predict the amount of available water each year.  The Eastern Sierra snowpack provides water for Los Angeles and the Western Sierra snowpack provides water for most of the Central Valley and San Francisco.  Those agencies have been watching it and studying it for a long time. The variability from year to year is huge which is part of the reason why California has so many reservoirs for storing water.  The fact that there is not as much snow this year as last means NOTHING>  

  3. Here is a link to records at Mammoth Mountain from 1969 showing annual snowfall,  There is a low of 94 inches in 1976 to 668 inches last year.  The variability from year to year is huge.  BTW the records go back before then because hydrologists from L. A.’s Department of Water and Power did studies every year long before Mammoth was a ski resort.  As those of us who are familiar with the Sierras know, the variability from place to place in the Sierras is also huge.  Mammoth’s ski resort founder,  Dave Mc Coy, picked that location because he had learned in his employment as a hydrologist for LADWP that Mammoth was the place in the central Eastern Sierras where the most snow falls.  Just a few miles away there will be less than half the snow fall seen at Mammoth Mountain.

  4. In 2006 the State Department of Water Resources did a nice publication on Climate Change  titled.  “Progress on Incorporating Climate Change into Planning and Management of California’s Water Resources  – Technical Memorandum Report.   It can be found on their web site at  They looked at historical data and found the following on page 2-23 regarding snowmelt runoff in April through July that feeds our reservoirs and supplies water to much of California. 

    “Based on the linear trends depicted in Figure 2-13 and Figure 2-14 for the four Sacramento Valley rivers:
    • April through July runoff, as compared to total water year runoff, has declined about 9 percent over the past 100 years
    • April through July runoff volume has decreased over the same period and total water year runoff during the same period has remained about the same”Basically snowmelt runoff has decreased by 9 percent in the last 100 years while more of our precipitation now falls as rain.  That is significant regardless of how much snow may have fallen.  It is the water in the snow that is important and when we get it that helps to meet summertime demand.    

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Molly Samuel

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.

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