Articles | Volume 13, issue 23
Research article
03 Dec 2013
Research article |  | 03 Dec 2013

A WRF simulation of the impact of 3-D radiative transfer on surface hydrology over the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada

K. N. Liou, Y. Gu, L. R. Leung, W. L. Lee, and R. G. Fovell

Abstract. We investigate 3-D mountains/snow effects on solar flux distributions and their impact on surface hydrology over the western United States, specifically the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. The Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model, applied at a 30 km grid resolution, is used in conjunction with a 3-D radiative transfer parameterization covering a time period from 1 November 2007 to 31 May 2008, during which abundant snowfall occurred. A comparison of the 3-D WRF simulation with the observed snow water equivalent (SWE) and precipitation from Snowpack Telemetry (SNOTEL) sites shows reasonable agreement in terms of spatial patterns and daily and seasonal variability, although the simulation generally has a positive precipitation bias. We show that 3-D mountain features have a profound impact on the diurnal and monthly variation of surface radiative and heat fluxes, and on the consequent elevation-dependence of snowmelt and precipitation distributions. In particular, during the winter months, large deviations (3-D-PP, in which PP denotes the plane-parallel approach) of the monthly mean surface solar flux are found in the morning and afternoon hours due to shading effects for elevations below 2.5 km. During spring, positive deviations shift to the earlier morning. Over mountaintops higher than 3 km, positive deviations are found throughout the day, with the largest values of 40–60 W m−2 occurring at noon during the snowmelt season of April to May. The monthly SWE deviations averaged over the entire domain show an increase in lower elevations due to reduced snowmelt, which leads to a reduction in cumulative runoff. Over higher elevation areas, positive SWE deviations are found because of increased solar radiation available at the surface. Overall, this study shows that deviations of SWE due to 3-D radiation effects range from an increase of 18% at the lowest elevation range (1.5–2 km) to a decrease of 8% at the highest elevation range (above 3 km). Since lower elevation areas occupy larger fractions of the land surface, the net effect of 3-D radiative transfer is to extend snowmelt and snowmelt-driven runoff into the warm season. Because 60–90% of water resources originate from mountains worldwide, the aforementioned differences in simulated hydrology due solely to 3-D interactions between solar radiation and mountains/snow merit further investigation in order to understand the implications of modeling mountain water resources, and these resources' vulnerability to climate change and air pollution.

Final-revised paper