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Atmospheric Rivers: An overlooked threat to the Australian snowpack in a warming World
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  • Hamish McGowan,
  • John Callow,
  • Shane Bilish,
  • Andrew Schwartz,
  • Alison Theobald
Hamish McGowan
University of Queensland

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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John Callow
University of Western Australia
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Shane Bilish
Snowy Hydro Ltd
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Andrew Schwartz
University of Queensland
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Alison Theobald
Queensland Government
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The Australian seasonal snowpack can be classified as a marginal maritime snowpack with a temperature near 0 °C throughout the snow season. Subtle changes in atmosphere – snow energetics therefore result in rapid change in snowpack properties, which occur against a background of a warming climate. This has been attributed to a 40% decline in spring snow depths in the past 40 yrs. and geologic records suggest the seasonal snowpack is now near a 2000 yr. minimum. Modelled future snow cover predicts further decline by 57 % to 78 % of current maximum snow depth by the 2040s. Such research primarily attributes this decline in snow cover to global warming. However, the past decline in Australian snow cover can also be attributed to change in synoptic wintertime precipitation patterns that have resulted in a dramatic increase in proportional winter and spring precipitation of tropical origin since the 1950s. Tropical moisture is predominantly transported into southeast Australia during negative phases of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) by northwest cloud bands – visible expressions of atmospheric rivers coupling tropical moisture sources northwest of Australia to the Australian Alps. Here we present a case study of one such event that occurred from the 21 to 23 July 2016 when 118 mm of rain-on-snow over a 12 hr period led to near complete ablation of the snowpack. While predictions of future variability of the IOD due to global warming remain uncertain, we suggest that warming atmospheric temperatures increase the risk of such extreme rain–on-snow events during negative IOD events. Combined with reduced snow cover in response to warmer ambient wintertime temperatures, such rain-on-snow events may further accelerate the reduction in seasonal snow cover in the Australian Alps, possibly on occasions after which the snowpack does not recover before spring. These conditions would present significant challenges to the Australian snow sports industry which is worth $2 billion annually and lead to change in snow dependent ecosystems and alpine hydrology.