2002 Annual

Wednesday, 16 January 2002: 2:00 PM
Soil Moisture and Snow Cover: Active or Passive Elements of Climate?
Robert J. Oglesby, NASA/MSFC/GHCC, Huntsville, AL; and S. Marshall, D. J. Erickson III, J. O. Roads, and F. R. Robertson
A key question in the study of the hydrologic cycle is the extent to which surface effects such as soil moisture and snow cover are simply passive elements or whether they can affect the evolution of climate on seasonal and longer time scales. We have constructed ensembles of predictability studies using the NCAR CCM3 in which we compared the relative roles of initial surface and atmospheric conditions over the central and western U.S. in determining the subsequent evolution of soil moisture and of snow cover. We have also made sensitivity studies with exaggerated soil moisture and snow cover anomalies in order to determine the physical processes that may be important.

Results from simulations with realistic soil moisture anomalies indicate that internal climate variability may be the strongest factor, with some indication that the initial atmospheric state is also important. The initial state of soil moisture does not appear important, a result that held whether simulations were started in late winter or late spring. Model runs with exaggerated soil moisture reductions (near-desert conditions) showed a much larger effect, with warmer surface temperatures, reduced precipitation, and lower surface pressures; the latter indicating a response of the atmospheric circulation. These results suggest the possibility of a threshold effect in soil moisture, whereby an anomaly must be of a sufficient size before it can have a significant impact on the atmospheric circulation and hence climate.

Results from simulations with realistic snow cover anomalies indicate that the time of year can be crucial. When introduced in late winter, these anomalies strongly affected the subsequent evolution of snow cover. When introduced in early winter, however, little or no effect is seen on the subsequent snow cover. Runs with greatly exaggerated initial snow cover indicate that the high reflectivity of snow is the most important process by which snow cover can impact climate, through lower surface temperatures and increased surface pressures. In early winter, the amount of solar radiation is very small and so this albedo effect is inconsequential while in late winter, with the sun higher in the sky and period of daylight longer, the effect is much stronger.

The results to date were obtained for model runs with present-day conditions. We are currently analyzing runs made with projected forcings for the 21st century to see if these results are modified in any way under likely scenarios of future climate change. An intriguing new statistical technique involving 'clustering' is developed to assist in this analysis.

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