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Less Snow Could Be Coming To California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Frank Gehrke, chief of California's Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, walks across a nearly snow barren meadow while conducting the first snow survey of the season at the Phillips Station snow course Jan. 3, 2018

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

If temperatures increase in California because of climate change, snow could melt earlier in the Sierra Nevada — and you might only find it at higher elevations.

In a study released this week a UC Irvine team found that if winter temperatures increase by 1 degree Celsius, it will lead to a 20 percent jump in the likelihood of below-average snow accumulation in the high country.

"Warmer winter temperatures tend to decrease the amount of water stored as snow,” said the report's lead author, Laurie Huning with UC Irvine. She says less snow makes it more likely for drought conditions, and could make the wildfire season longer.

Huning says not all parts of the Sierra Nevada will be affected in the same way. She says the northwestern range is the most threatened.

“We're likely shifting from having precipitation falling as snow to precipitation now falling more likely as rainfall, and this changes the timing of runoff,” Huning said.

If there is a temperature increase of 1.5 degree Celsius, there is around an 80 percent likelihood that most of the snowpack will inch above 8,300 feet. That number goes to 90 percent with 2 degrees of warming.

“Even a change in the Sierra Nevada’s winter temperature from 1.0 to 1.5 degrees Celsius can threaten the natural water storage capability of the range,” Huning said.

She says this could hurt the farms, dairies and ranches that rely on water that originates in the Sierra Nevada.

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