Articles | Volume 12, issue 1
Research article
05 Jan 2018
Research article |  | 05 Jan 2018

Future snowfall in the Alps: projections based on the EURO-CORDEX regional climate models

Prisco Frei, Sven Kotlarski, Mark A. Liniger, and Christoph Schär

Abstract. Twenty-first century snowfall changes over the European Alps are assessed based on high-resolution regional climate model (RCM) data made available through the EURO-CORDEX initiative. Fourteen different combinations of global and regional climate models with a target resolution of 12 km and two different emission scenarios are considered. As raw snowfall amounts are not provided by all RCMs, a newly developed method to separate snowfall from total precipitation based on near-surface temperature conditions and accounting for subgrid-scale topographic variability is employed. The evaluation of the simulated snowfall amounts against an observation-based reference indicates the ability of RCMs to capture the main characteristics of the snowfall seasonal cycle and its elevation dependency but also reveals considerable positive biases especially at high elevations. These biases can partly be removed by the application of a dedicated RCM bias adjustment that separately considers temperature and precipitation biases.

Snowfall projections reveal a robust signal of decreasing snowfall amounts over most parts of the Alps for both emission scenarios. Domain and multi-model mean decreases in mean September–May snowfall by the end of the century amount to −25 and −45 % for representative concentration pathway (RCP) scenarios RCP4.5 and RCP8.5, respectively. Snowfall in low-lying areas in the Alpine forelands could be reduced by more than −80 %. These decreases are driven by the projected warming and are strongly connected to an important decrease in snowfall frequency and snowfall fraction and are also apparent for heavy snowfall events. In contrast, high-elevation regions could experience slight snowfall increases in midwinter for both emission scenarios despite the general decrease in the snowfall fraction. These increases in mean and heavy snowfall can be explained by a general increase in winter precipitation and by the fact that, with increasing temperatures, climatologically cold areas are shifted into a temperature interval which favours higher snowfall intensities. In general, percentage changes in snowfall indices are robust with respect to the RCM postprocessing strategy employed: similar results are obtained for raw, separated, and separated–bias-adjusted snowfall amounts. Absolute changes, however, can differ among these three methods.

Short summary
Snowfall is central to Alpine environments, and its future changes will be associated with pronounced impacts. We here assess future snowfall changes in the European Alps based on an ensemble of state-of-the-art regional climate model experiments and on two different greenhouse gas emission scenarios. The results reveal pronounced changes in the Alpine snowfall climate with considerable snowfall reductions at low and mid-elevations but also snowfall increases at high elevations in midwinter.