Articles | Volume 11, issue 5
Research article
06 Oct 2017
Research article |  | 06 Oct 2017

Spatiotemporal patterns of High Mountain Asia's snowmelt season identified with an automated snowmelt detection algorithm, 1987–2016

Taylor Smith, Bodo Bookhagen, and Aljoscha Rheinwalt

Abstract. High Mountain Asia (HMA) – encompassing the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding mountain ranges – is the primary water source for much of Asia, serving more than a billion downstream users. Many catchments receive the majority of their yearly water budget in the form of snow, which is poorly monitored by sparse in situ weather networks. Both the timing and volume of snowmelt play critical roles in downstream water provision, as many applications – such as agriculture, drinking-water generation, and hydropower – rely on consistent and predictable snowmelt runoff. Here, we examine passive microwave data across HMA with five sensors (SSMI, SSMIS, AMSR-E, AMSR2, and GPM) from 1987 to 2016 to track the timing of the snowmelt season – defined here as the time between maximum passive microwave signal separation and snow clearance. We validated our method against climate model surface temperatures, optical remote-sensing snow-cover data, and a manual control dataset (n = 2100, 3 variables at 25 locations over 28 years); our algorithm is generally accurate within 3–5 days. Using the algorithm-generated snowmelt dates, we examine the spatiotemporal patterns of the snowmelt season across HMA. The climatically short (29-year) time series, along with complex interannual snowfall variations, makes determining trends in snowmelt dates at a single point difficult. We instead identify trends in snowmelt timing by using hierarchical clustering of the passive microwave data to determine trends in self-similar regions. We make the following four key observations. (1) The end of the snowmelt season is trending almost universally earlier in HMA (negative trends). Changes in the end of the snowmelt season are generally between 2 and 8 days decade−1 over the 29-year study period (5–25 days total). The length of the snowmelt season is thus shrinking in many, though not all, regions of HMA. Some areas exhibit later peak signal separation (positive trends), but with generally smaller magnitudes than trends in snowmelt end. (2) Areas with long snowmelt periods, such as the Tibetan Plateau, show the strongest compression of the snowmelt season (negative trends). These trends are apparent regardless of the time period over which the regression is performed. (3) While trends averaged over 3 decades indicate generally earlier snowmelt seasons, data from the last 14 years (2002–2016) exhibit positive trends in many regions, such as parts of the Pamir and Kunlun Shan. Due to the short nature of the time series, it is not clear whether this change is a reversal of a long-term trend or simply interannual variability. (4) Some regions with stable or growing glaciers – such as the Karakoram and Kunlun Shan – see slightly later snowmelt seasons and longer snowmelt periods. It is likely that changes in the snowmelt regime of HMA account for some of the observed heterogeneity in glacier response to climate change. While the decadal increases in regional temperature have in general led to earlier and shortened melt seasons, changes in HMA's cryosphere have been spatially and temporally heterogeneous.

Short summary
High Mountain Asia’s rivers, which serve more than a billion people, receive a significant portion of their water budget in the form of snow. We develop an algorithm to track timing of the snowmelt season using passive microwave data from 1987 to 2016. We find that most of High Mountain Asia has experienced shorter melt seasons, earlier snow clearance, and earlier snowmelt onset, but that these changes are highly spatially and temporally heterogeneous.