Snow cover

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-96-en
Also known as: CLIM 008
Created 29 Nov 2016 Published 20 Dec 2016 Last modified 20 Dec 2016
13 min read
Snow cover extent in the Northern Hemisphere has declined significantly over the past 90 years, with most of the reductions occurring since 1980. Over the period 1967–2015, snow cover extent in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased by 7 % on average in March and April and by 47 % in June; the observed reductions in Europe are even larger, at 13 % for March and April and 76 % for June. Snow mass in the Northern Hemisphere is estimated to have decreased by 7 % in March from 1982 to 2009; snow mass in Europe has decreased more rapidly than the average for the Northern Hemisphere, but with large interannual variation. Model simulations project widespread reductions in the extent and duration of snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere and in Europe over the 21st century. Changes in snow cover affect the Earth’s surface reflectivity, water resources, flora and fauna and their ecology, agriculture, forestry, tourism, snow sports, transport and power generation.

Key messages

  • Snow cover extent in the Northern Hemisphere has declined significantly over the past 90 years, with most of the reductions occurring since 1980. Over the period 1967–2015, snow cover extent in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased by 7 % on average in March and April and by 47 % in June; the observed reductions in Europe are even larger, at 13 % for March and April and 76 % for June.
  • Snow mass in the Northern Hemisphere is estimated to have decreased by 7 % in March from 1982 to 2009; snow mass in Europe has decreased more rapidly than the average for the Northern Hemisphere, but with large interannual variation.
  • Model simulations project widespread reductions in the extent and duration of snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere and in Europe over the 21st century.
  • Changes in snow cover affect the Earth’s surface reflectivity, water resources, flora and fauna and their ecology, agriculture, forestry, tourism, snow sports, transport and power generation.

What is the trend in snow cover extent and snow mass in Europe?

Trend in snow cover extent over the Northern Hemisphere and in Europe

Dashboard
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Trend in March snow mass in Europe (excluding mountain areas)

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Projected change in Northern hemisphere spring snow cover extent

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Past trends

Satellite observations of monthly snow cover extent in the Northern Hemisphere are available from 1967 onwards [i]. A detailed analysis based on multiple sources shows there have been significant decreases in Northern Hemisphere snow cover extent during the spring melt season since about 1980 (March to June; Figure 1, left) [ii]; in other seasons, the snow cover extent has remained stable or even slightly increased. A separate analysis for Europe (EEA-39 region) shows even larger reductions of 13 % for March and April, and 76 % for June between 1980 and 2015 (Figure 1, right).

Decreases in snow cover extent are caused by an earlier onset of melting and a shorter duration of the snow season. Since 1972, the duration of the snow season averaged over the Northern Hemisphere declined by five days per decade, but with substantial regional variation. The duration of the snow season has decreased by up to 25 days in western, northern and eastern Europe due to earlier spring melt, whereas it has increased by up to 15 days in south-eastern Europe due to an earlier onset of the snow season [iii].

The snow mass (i.e. the amount of water that the snow contains) is an important variable, as it affects the role of snow in the hydrological cycle. For the whole of the Northern Hemisphere, a 7 % decrease in March snow mass was observed between 1982 and 2009 [iv]. An extension of this data focusing on EEA member countries demonstrates a stronger average decline of 30 % for the period 1980–2015, although the year-to-year variation is large (Figure 2). Winter increases in precipitation have also led to an increase in snow mass at higher altitudes in Norway.

Projections

Northern Hemisphere snow cover will continue to shrink and snow seasons shorten as temperatures rise [v], although in the coldest regions snowfall can also increase in the middle of winter [vi]. The multi-model mean from the CMIP5 modelling exercise projects changes in March/April snow cover extent in the Northern Hemisphere during the 21st century ranging from 7 % for a low emissions scenario (RCP2.6) to 25 % for a high emissions scenario (RCP8.5) (Figure 3). The projected snow mass generally follows the snow cover extent with an estimated range of reduction from about 10 % for RCP2.6 to about 30 % for RCP8.5; projected reductions in the duration of the snow season range from about 10 days for RCP2.6 to about 40 days for RCP8.5 [vii].

Specific regional studies suggest significant reductions in snow mass in, for example, the Alps in general [viii], Switzerland [ix], the alpine range of Italy [x], the Pyrenees [xi], Norway [xii], the Turkish mountains [xiii] and the Balkan mountains [xiv]. These changes can have dramatic downstream effects as melt water contributes up to 60–70 % to annual river flows. Despite the projected decrease in long-term mean snow mass in the Northern Hemisphere, model simulations indicate occasional winters of heavy snowfall, but these become increasingly uncommon towards the end of the 21st century.



[i] T. W. Estilow, A. H. Young, and D. A. Robinson, ‘A Long-Term Northern Hemisphere Snow Cover Extent Data Record for Climate Studies and Monitoring’,Earth System Science Data 7, no. 1 (18 June 2015): 137–42, doi:10.5194/essd-7-137-2015.

[ii] R. D. Brown and D. A. Robinson, ‘Northern Hemisphere Spring Snow Cover Variability and Change over 1922–2010 Including an Assessment of Uncertainty’,The Cryosphere 5, no. 1 (16 March 2011): 219–29, doi:10.5194/tc-5-219-2011; D. G. Vaughan et al., ‘Observations: Cryosphere’, inClimate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ed. T. F. Stocker et al. (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 317–82, http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_Chapter04_FINAL.pdf.

[iii] Gwangyong Choi, David A. Robinson, and Sinkyu Kang, ‘Changing Northern Hemisphere Snow Seasons’,Journal of Climate 23, no. 19 (October 2010): 5305–10, doi:10.1175/2010JCLI3644.1; J. R. Mioduszewski et al., ‘Controls on Spatial and Temporal Variability in Northern Hemisphere Terrestrial Snow Melt Timing, 1979–2012’,Journal of Climate 28, no. 6 (March 2015): 2136–53, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-14-00558.1.

[iv] Matias Takala et al., ‘Estimating Northern Hemisphere Snow Water Equivalent for Climate Research through Assimilation of Space-Borne Radiometer Data and Ground-Based Measurements’,Remote Sensing of Environment 115, no. 12 (December 2011): 3517–29, doi:10.1016/j.rse.2011.08.014.

[v] Vaughan et al., ‘Observations: Cryosphere’.

[vi] I. Hanssen-Bauer et al., eds.,Klima I Norge 2100.Kunnskapsgrunnlag for Klimatilpasning Oppdatert I 2015 (Climate in Norway 2100. Knowledge Basis for Climate Change Adaptation Updated in 2015) [in Norwegian], NCCS Report, 2/2015 (Norsk klimaservicesenter (NKSS), 2015), http://www.miljodirektoratet.no/20804; Jouni Räisänen, ‘Twenty-First Century Changes in Snowfall Climate in Northern Europe in ENSEMBLES Regional Climate Models’,Climate Dynamics, no. 46 (2016): 339–53, doi:10.1007/s00382-015-2587-0.

[vii] C. Brutel-Vuilmet, M. Ménégoz, and G. Krinner, ‘An Analysis of Present and Future Seasonal Northern Hemisphere Land Snow Cover Simulated by CMIP5 Coupled Climate Models’,The Cryosphere 7, no. 1 (21 January 2013): 67–80, doi:10.5194/tc-7-67-2013.

[viii] Christian Steger et al., ‘Alpine Snow Cover in a Changing Climate: A Regional Climate Model Perspective’,Climate Dynamics 41, no. 3–4 (August 2013): 735–54, doi:10.1007/s00382-012-1545-3; Edgar Schmucki et al., ‘Simulations of 21st Century Snow Response to Climate Change in Switzerland from a Set of RCMs: Snow Response to Climate Change in Switzerland’,International Journal of Climatology 35, no. 11 (September 2015): 3262–73, doi:10.1002/joc.4205.

[ix] BAFU,Auswirkungen Der Klimaänderung Auf Wasserressourcen Und Gewässer. Synthesebericht Zum Projekt ‘Klimaänderung Und Hydrologie in Der Schweiz’ (CCHydro), vol. 2012, Umwelt-Wissen 1217 (Bern: Bundesamt für Umwelt, 2012).

[x] A. Soncini and D. Bocchiola, ‘Assessment of Future Snowfall Regimes within the Italian Alps Using General Circulation Models’,Cold Regions Science and Technology 68, no. 3 (September 2011): 113–23, doi:10.1016/j.coldregions.2011.06.011.

[xi] J.I. López-Moreno, S. Goyette, and M. Beniston, ‘Impact of Climate Change on Snowpack in the Pyrenees: Horizontal Spatial Variability and Vertical Gradients’,Journal of Hydrology 374, no. 3–4 (2009): 384–96, doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2009.06.049.

[xii] Hanssen-Bauer et al.,Klima I Norge 2100.Kunnskapsgrunnlag for Klimatilpasning Oppdatert I 2015 (Climate in Norway 2100. Knowledge Basis for Climate Change Adaptation Updated in 2015) [in Norwegian].

[xiii] M. Özdoğan, ‘Climate Change Impacts on Snow Water Availability in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin’,Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 15, no. 9 (2011): 2789–2803, doi:10.5194/hess-15-2789-2011.

[xiv] FAO, ‘Forests and Climate Change in Eastern Europe and Central Asia’, Forests and Climate Change Working Paper 8 (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2010), http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/k9589e/k9589e.pdf.

Indicator specification and metadata

Indicator definition

  • Trend in spring snow cover extent over the Northern Hemisphere and in Europe
  • Trend in March snow mass in Europe (excluding mountain areas)
  • Projected change in Northern hemisphere spring snow cover extent

Units

  • Snow cover extent anomaly (million km²)
  • Snow mass anomaly (%)
  • Change in snow cover extent (%)

Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2013, the European Commission (EC) presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package. This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM/2013/216 final) and a number of supporting documents. The overall aim of the EU Adaptation Strategy is to contribute to a more climate-resilient Europe.

One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which will be achieved by bridging the knowledge gap and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Climate-ADAPT has been developed jointly by the EC and the EEA to share knowledge on (1) observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health, (2) relevant research, (3) EU, transnational, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans, and (4) adaptation case studies.

Further objectives include Promoting adaptation in key vulnerablesectors through climate-proofing EU sector policies and Promoting action by Member States. Most EU Member States have already adopted national adaptation strategies and many have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation. The EC also supports adaptation in cities through the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy initiative.

In September 2016, the EC presented an indicative roadmap for the evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy by 2018.

In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7th EU Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) to 2020, ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. The 7th EAP is intended to help guide EU action on environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020. It highlights that ‘Action to mitigate and adapt to climate change will increase the resilience of the Union’s economy and society, while stimulating innovation and protecting the Union’s natural resources.’ Consequently, several priority objectives of the 7th EAP refer to climate change adaptation.

Targets

No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

  • 7th Environment Action Programme
    DECISION No 1386/2013/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7 th EU Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. This programme is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020 based on the following vision: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.’
  • Climate-ADAPT: Mainstreaming adaptation in EU sector policies
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: National adaptation strategies
    Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
  • DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
    Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives in the future. This web portal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
  • EU Adaptation Strategy Package
    In April 2013, the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it enhances the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

Satellite observations on the monthly snow cover extent in the Northern Hemisphere are available since November 1966 from the Rutgers University Global Snow Lab. Reconstructed historical estimates are used to extend the time series back to 1922. Trend lines have been added for the satellite area.

Data on snow mass in Europe (exculding mountain areas) are available since 1979 from the Globsnow project. Trend lines have been added.

Projcted changes in snow cover extent up to 2100 are available from the CMIP5 ensemble of climate models for different climate forcing scenarios (RCPs).

Methodology for gap filling

Not applicable

Methodology references

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

Not applicable

Data sets uncertainty

Data on the cryosphere vary significantly with regard to availability and quality. Snow and ice cover have been monitored globally since satellite measurements started in the 1970s. Improved technology allows for more detailed observations and observations of a higher resolution.

Continuous efforts are being made to improve knowledge of the cryosphere. Scenarios for the future development of key components of the cryosphere have recently become available from the CMIP5 project, which has provided climate change projections for the IPCC AR5. Owing to their economic importance, considerable efforts have also been devoted to improving real-time monitoring of snow cover and sea ice.

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sources

Generic metadata

Topics:

information.png Tags:
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DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 008
Temporal coverage:

Contacts and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Hans-Martin Füssel

EEA Management Plan

2016 1.4.1 (note: EEA internal system)

Dates

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 4 years
European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Denmark
Phone: +45 3336 7100