IPCC report demonstrates how melting snow in mountains affects water quantity

US DOE Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Courtesy

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For the first time since 1996, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, has dedicated a chapter to mountains in one of its reports.

One of the lead authors of the report is Heidi Steltzer, a member of the Department of Energy’s Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of biology at Fort Lewis College in Colorado. According to her, the chapter in the report focuses on where and how the cryosphere — any part of the planet with a significant amount of frozen water — in mountains is changing.

Steltzer said she has been explaining the language of her study on social media, and Merriam-Webster posted an article that said it is watching the word “cryosphere” and is considering adding the word to the dictionary. Steltzer added that the IPCC made a “bold move” to use “cryosphere” in the name of the report, because most people are not familiar with the term.

“We can now start to talk holistically about one of the spheres of our planet,” Steltzer said. “The frozen parts of our world where there’s frozen water … that’s a huge move forward, because language can sometimes limit our understanding of something.”

In a recent report by the IPCC, the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate used the latest scientific literature to describe climate change’s impacts on the ocean and cryosphere.

Melting glaciers, snow and permafrost morph the cryosphere in mountains because of climate change. This reduced snowpack occurs in the habitats of ice-dependent species and in watershed sources for humans. With less snow, there is less water available on an annual basis.

The population of the western United States is reliant on water from melting snow to fill reservoirs that are used for the remainder of the year, according to Kenneth Williams, the deputy director of the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area at Berkeley Lab. He added that people view mountain snowpacks as the “water towers of the world.”

“Decisions need to be made about water utilization, because that annual water tower will not be filling up the same way it once did,” Williams said.

Steltzer said she wants to continue studying and understanding the climate systems. She added that we are seeing impacts due to climate change that we can feel and that are in the media.

“We don’t need to look to the future, climate change is here, it’s happening now, and we can start to ask questions and understand it better,” Steltzer said. “We need to act now to adapt and mitigate for climate change more than we need more data.”

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.