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9 March 2017

Snowfall May Melt More Slowly in a Warmer World

The most direct threat born from global warming is the melting of polar ice caps, leading to rising sea levels. This is a clear and present danger which could render huge swathes of land uninhabitable, drastically change weather patterns and reshape the world entirely. Warmer temperatures will also result in a lot less snow on mountaintops, but when the remaining snow does melt off, it will do so more slowly than it does now.

Currently, the thinnest top layer of snow on mountains remains static during the winter and early spring, then quickly melts off in the late spring and the early summer. With increases in global temperature, the snow will  melt more slowly, but the actual process will begin in the winter. This means that, while the snow will melt more slowly, it will also be gone sooner in the year.

This might not sound like a drastic change, but it will have significant impact on the water cycle. Meltwater from mountainous regions feeds into streams and rivers, carrying nutrients down from the higher altitudes to sustain the plant and animal life below. If the snow is melting more slowly, the water will only trickle, decreasing the chances of it making it all the way down, instead being absorbed into the earth or plant roots.

In time, whole eco-systems could actually break down, and even the people who live and farm in these regions will start to feel the effects. Scientists are slowly beginning to realise that the relationship between global warming and ice and snow is far more complex than previously thought. As the climate continues to change, we’re witnessing things first hand which were never predicted as results of global warming.

That’s what’s really unsettling about all this, it’s a testament to the fact that climate change is only going to keep throwing curveballs at us. We’ve been able to accurately predict many things, but not prevent them, so when you realise that there are so many other side-effects which we’ll likely have no idea about until they’ve already happened, the severity of the situation becomes acutely apparent.

Different environments rely on snowfall in markedly different ways. Snowpack is an important water source in some areas, and a vital habitat for wildlife in others. When these systems are displaced, it has a ripple effect, with the potential to be ecologically devastating. Some mountain river systems rely on spring flooding, as in turn do the animals which live in and around those rivers, and the people which fish from them and use them for fresh water. Imagine what would happen if even one of those river stopped flowing.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.