Canadian snowpack gets thinner every decade: Environment Canada study

Canadian snowpack gets thinner every decade: Environment Canada study

Much of what used to come down as snow now happens as rain

It may not feel like it the morning after a blizzard, but Canada gets less snow than it used to — a lot less.

That’s the conclusion of scientists at Environment Canada, who have just published what they say is the most precise estimate of global snowfall yet.

“It seems like it should be easy, right? You just stick a ruler in the snow,” said Chris Derksen, a co-author of the study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

But no.

Unlike rain, snow depth can vary widely over just a few metres depending on factors such as wind. As well, some snow is heavy with moisture and some is dry powder.

And the world’s network for snow observation is sparse, Derksen said. Add to that the difficulty of trying to estimate snow depth from satellite observations and you’ve got the beginnings of what has been a 15-year project for Derksen’s team.

“Snow is a tricky thing to measure,” he said. “We had quite a few data sets that estimated snow mass, but they were based on different techniques and they didn’t agree with each other very well.”

Working with Finnish colleagues, the federal researchers combined satellite data and on-the-ground measurements.

READ MORE: Higher-than-normal snowpacks mean parts of B.C. at risk of flooding

On average, they conclude, the world gets about 3,000 billion tonnes of snow every year.

But that’s not a static number, at least not in North America. Snowfall hasn’t changed much over Eurasia since 1980, but it is declining in Canada and the United States.

Over the last 39 years, snowfall in the two countries has dropped by about 4.6 billion tonnes a year. The paper is silent on how many shovelfuls that is, but Derksen said it’s about enough to fill almost two million Olympic-sized swimming pools with snowmelt.

The steepest drops are in the eastern part of the continent. Parts of the west have actually seen slight increases.

Derksen said regions with less snow aren’t necessarily drying out. Climate change has been shortening the season for a while, and some of what used to fall as snow now comes down as rain.

“The amount of precipitation is not decreasing.”

But snow is a lot easier to manage, he said.

“When (snow) melts, we can manage our reservoir levels and trap that meltwater. As soon as it rains, it runs off in streams.”

That difference has important consequences for big-city water supplies as well as flood threat management. The 2013 Calgary flood is an example of what can happen when unexpected heavy rains come early in the season, said Derksen.

The paper does have its uncertainties. It is unable to say much about snowpack in the mountains, for example.

But Derksen said the work goes a long way to understanding that most Canadian of elements. And it should help managers plan as snowfall changes along with the rest of the climate.

“What this study has tried to do is narrow that uncertainty.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2020

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Climate changeEnvironment Canada weatherNews and WeatherSnow

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Rotary Park Auto Tourist Camp, circa 1923. Two years later, the camp was moved Pooley Avenue, and is now the Mount Baker RV Park. Courtesy Jim Cameron.
After 96 years, Cranbrook’s downtown RV park is facing its future

The “Cranbrook Auto Camp” — Mount Baker RV Park — has operated at that spot since 1925. That’s about to change

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
253 new COVID-19 cases, 4 more deaths in Interior Health over the weekend

More than 1,000 cases in the region remain active

Latest COVID-19 numbers in Cranbrook and surrounding regions.
Cranbrook sees five COVID-19 cases in first week of January

To date, there have been nearly 230 cases reported in the East Kootenay region

(Courtesy photo)
SD5 joins teachers in calling for end to FSAs

School District 5 has sent a letter to the Ministry of Education to replace FSAs with alternate testing

Cranbrook Search and Rescue safely and effectively rescued an injured snowmobiler on January 16. Pictured are six members took part in a Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 course, which also took place on the 16th. Members are required to have at minimum AST1 for winter responses. (Facebook/Cranbrook SAR file)
Cranbrook SAR rescues injured snowmobiler from Lumberton area

A helicopter crew assisted in safely and quickly located the injured person

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C. adjusts COVID-19 vaccine rollout for delivery slowdown

Daily cases decline over weekend, 31 more deaths

Sunnybank
COVID-19 related deaths at Oliver, West Kelowna and Vernon senior care homes

Sunnybank, Heritage Retirement Residence and Noric House recorded deaths over the weekend

A female prisoner sent Langford police officers a thank-you card after she spent days in their custody. (Twitter/West Shore RCMP)
Woman gives Victoria-area jail 4.5-star review in handwritten card to police after arrest

‘We don’t often get thank you cards from people who stay with us, but this was sure nice to see’: RCMP

An elk got his antlers caught up in a zip line in Youbou over the weekend. (Conservation Officer Service Photo)
Elk rescued from zip line in Youbou on Vancouver Island

Officials urge people to manage items on their property that can hurt animals

A Trail man has a lucky tin for a keepsake after it saved him from a stabbing last week. File photo
Small tin in Kootenay man’s jacket pocket saved him from stabbing: RCMP

The man was uninjured thanks to a tin in his jacket

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Chantel Moore, 26, was fatally shot by a police officer during a wellness check in the early morning of June 4, 2020, in Edmundston, N.B. (Facebook)
Frustrated family denied access to B.C. Indigenous woman’s police shooting report

Independent investigation into B.C. woman’s fatal shooting in New Brunswick filed to Crown

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Delta Police Constable Jason Martens and Dezi, a nine-year-old German Shepherd that recently retired after 10 years with Delta Police. (Photo submitted)
Dezi, a Delta police dog, retires on a high note after decade of service

Nine-year-old German Shepherd now fights over toys instead of chasing down bad guys

Most Read