Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

rain1.jpg

(Photo: Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons)

How More Rain Will Worsen Water Woes

• May 22, 2014 • 8:51 AM

(Photo: Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons)

As snow becomes history, a smaller proportion of the planet’s precipitation will reach the streams that feed water reservoirs.

As fossil fuels and deforestation continue to ratchet up global temperatures, less precipitation is forecast to fall as snowflakes. Instead, greater proportion of moisture is expected to tumble out of the clouds as raindrops.

It’s long been known that this will worsen climate change’s woes for water managers and hydroelectric operators. That’s because snowpacks can act as water batteries, gradually discharging their aqueous bounties into streams that feed reservoirs during warmer months, when demand for water is often greatest. That means reservoirs may need to be expanded to help cope with the loss of these frigid montane water reservesan expensive and environmentally damaging strategy.

But new research suggests that the problems could go even deeper than that.

We need to be bracing for a different type of interruption to our water supplies than had already been anticipated.

Research published Sunday in Nature Climate Change revealed how a bucket of snowmelt can act differently in the environment than a bucket of rain. As rainfall subs in for snowfall, scientists discovered that the amount of water flowing down streams is often reduced, even when the amount of precipitation remains the same.

The finding is worryingand, frankly, perplexing.

“As far as why this happens, we don’t know yet,” says Wouter Berghuijs, a University of Bristol hydrology researcher and the study’s lead author.

Berghuijs was part of a small team of European researchers that analyzed the effects of snowfall on streamflow using data from 420 water catchments across the United States between 1948 and 2001. They found that a higher ratio of snowfall to rainfall was associated with higher streamflow averages when compared with catchments that received little or no snow. “Furthermore,” they write in the paper, “the fraction of each year’s precipitation falling as snowfall has a significant influence on the annual streamflow within individual catchments.”

The researchers speculate that these differences could be related to water storage dynamics, evaporation rates, and the way water flows through different environments.

“An example mechanism could be the freezing of the ground,” Berghuijs says. “When you have a snowpack that sits on the ground for a long time, the soil underneath can become frozen. Later on, in spring time, when the snow melts, the ground underneath is frozen and the meltwater flows through to the river quickly. When you warm that soil, the soil may better hold the waterand evaporate it before it gets a chance to reach the river.”

Much more research is needed to help clarify the possible causes of the altered streamflow rates, including field measurements and computer models, according to Berghuijs. What the new research appears to make clear, though, is that we need to be bracing for a different type of interruption to our water supplies than had already been anticipated.

“If the amount of water in a river goes down, this may put pressure on hydropower production, irrigation schemes, and municipal water supply,” Berghuijs says. “For some, a change in total runoff may not cause much harmwhile other region will be much more severely affected.”

John Upton
John Upton is a science journalist with an ecology background. He has written recently for VICE, Slate, Nautilus, Modern Farmer, Grist, and Audubon magazine. He blogs at Wonk on the Wildlife. Upton's favorite eukaryotes are fungi, but he won't fault you for being human. Follow him on Twitter @johnupton.

More From John Upton

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.


October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.


October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.