Reconstructing Snowmelt in Idaho’s Watershed Using Historic Streamflow Records

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In recent decades, a warming climate likely has accelerated the timing of spring snowmelt in the western United States; however, records of the timing of snowmelt typically only extend to the 1980s. Stream gage data can lengthen records of the timing of snowmelt back to the early 1900s, enhancing understanding of past, current, and future climate change on snowmelt-dominated watersheds and associated ecosystems. We used snowpack telemetry data and historic streamflow records to test reconstructions of final snowmelt dates using Short Time Fourier Transform (STFT) wavelet analysis of hydrographs. STFT reconstructions tested against known final snowmelt dates over the last ~25 years indicate final snowmelt can be determined within ±4 days ~95% of the time and within ±7 days 100% of the time. Comparison of the STFT method with the center of timing method indicates that in addition to reconstructing actual snowmelt dates (as opposed to dates associated with the center of timing of streamflow), the STFT method may limit interpretation errors associated with changes in discharge not related to snowmelt. Reconstructions of final snowmelt dates in the Idaho, U.S. study area show intervals of early snowmelt (1920s–1930s), later and less variable snowmelt (1940s–1970s), and both variable and early snowmelt (~1985–2007). Early and variable snowmelt during the last ~20 years is associated with large wildfires.