Study explores impacts of a warming climate on global snowfall patterns

NASA awarded Ardeshir Ebtehaj $2.9 million to provide the longest and the most accurate satellite record of global snowfall. Ebtehaj is an associate professor and researcher in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering (CEGE) at the University of Minnesota. 

Earth’s snowpack is shrinking, glaciers are losing mass, sea ice is declining, and Greenland is melting at an unprecedented rate. These global losses of ice and snowpack are exacerbated as more precipitation is likely to fall in the form of rain rather than snow. 

These changes in the cryosphere, the frozen portions of Earth’s system, could have important impacts on future water availability and food resources. Mountain snowmelt contributes to water supplies for almost one-sixth of the world’s population. Climate projections indicate that decreased snowmelt could expose nearly two billion people to a high risk of decreased water supply in the next century. Accurate data on snowfall is needed to understand, predict, and mitigate present and future changes in the cryosphere. One challenge is the lack of an accurate, long-term record of snowfall data. Snowfall is one of the least observed hydrologic variables, especially in remote and high-altitude areas. 

Ardeshir Ebtehaj

Ardeshir Ebtehaj, a professor and researcher in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering (CEGE) at the University of Minnesota and collaborators in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center received $2.9 million from NASA to expand our understanding of the interplay between cryosphere and snowfall in a warming world. The main goal of Ebtehaj’s project, A Multi-Decadal Satellite Snowfall Data Record (MAESTRO), is to provide the longest and the most accurate record of global snowfall using coincident observations from a constellation of microwave satellites and the Cloud Profiling Radar (CPR) on board the CloudSat satellite.  

The outcomes of this new project will provide new opportunities to explore outstanding scientific questions about the cryosphere. They can lead to a better understanding of how space-time trends in high-latitude snowfall affect worldwide water availability and food security; how observed spatiotemporal changes of global snowpack and glaciers can be due to changes in snowfall, especially in mountainous watersheds; and how we might shrink uncertainties in the mass balance analysis of the Greenland ice sheet and the associated sea level rise. 

Image source: "View of Bunsen Peak from a frozen lake (1)" by YellowstoneNPS is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.