Project Highlights:

  • Learn about the dynamic role of snow in global water supply
  • Discover links between changing snow and water resource availability in a warming climate
  • Make real world impact by providing scenarios and recommendations that can be used by managers and policy makers



Rising temperatures are having impacts on many natural environmental systems around the world. High latitude and high elevation areas of the earth are experiencing particularly rapid temperature increases, resulting in changes in vegetation, carbon cycling, and many other ecosystem functions. These regions also host most of the globe’s seasonal snow cover, which is uniquely sensitive to rising temperatures because it impacts how much snow falls and accumulates, and how quickly it melts (Musselman et al. 2017). Snow plays a critical role in the earth’s energy and water cycles (see Nature Climate Change focus section) and provides an important delay in water supply, to which many ecosystems, societies, and economies have adapted and depend. In fact, more than 2 billion people have the majority of their water supply derived from snowmelt.

The impact of rising temperatures on water resources that depend on snow is complex since temperature affects the amount of water stored temporally (from months to decades) at the earth surface in the form of snow and ice, and also the timing and rate of melt. However, the implications of this temperature impact on snowmelt for changes in water resources are poorly understood. This project will provide an important step forward for understanding the impacts of climate change on water resources, by fingerprinting the component of this impact that is due to changing snow dynamics in selected river basins around the world. The improved understanding of the impact of snow on water resources in these basins will then be used to examine a key question, namely are certain basins likely to be more resilient or sensitive than others to the effects of climate change on snow resources? This will be critical information for future planning and adaptation measures.

Figure 1: Rising temperatures are impacting how much snow is accumulating, and how fast it is melting. For many regions of the earth, this will have far reaching consequences for water resources dependent on this snow. This project will find out how changes in snow can be linked to changes in water resources across regions of the world where this is likely to have the biggest ecological, societal, and economic impacts.


Part 1 of the project will select a suite of key river basins from around the world that have varying degrees of dependency on snow for their water resources. The project will then compile streamflow and climate information from these selected river basins, some of which will already be available from the supervisory team. Part 2 of the project will use analytical models of snow dynamics (e.g. Woods 2009) to develop changing snowpack and snowmelt scenarios under the impact of temperature increases. These will be compared with other measures of changing snowpack dynamics available from climate stations, snow monitoring, and remote sensing. Part 3 of the project will develop estimates for how sensitive or resilient the water resources of different river basins around the world are likely to be to these changing snowmelt conditions using a combination of model and data based comparative approaches.

Training and Skills

There is ever increasing demand for skills in the analysis of big data, and this project will provide the student with the opportunity to learn and develop an advanced understanding of the analysis of large datasets. The student will also develop statistical skills and tools, applied in the context of hydrological process knowledge, to clearly isolate causality from this data. In addition, the student will be able to develop and link analytical skills that provide theoretical scenarios that can be tested against real world data and information. Finally, the student will have a diverse mentoring team with complementary skills and approaches to science, which will provide a unique opportunity for the student to tackle an important global problem in water resources.


Year 1: Examination of existing links between snow and water resources, key knowledge gaps and key research needs. Selection of river basins from around the world and collection of databases, including weather station, streamflow, and topographic data. Attend international conferences to help generate ideas and discussion.

Year 2: Use scenarios for future temperature changes to estimate the impact on snow dynamics using analytical models and other validation data. With these results, begin to link changing snowmelt dynamics with changes in water resources using a combination of model and data based sensitivity approaches. Present results at an international conference, begin writing the work up for journal publication.

Year 3: Evaluate the context of the sensitivity or resilience of the water resources from river basins around the world to changing snow, and the implications of the results for ecosystems, human populations and economic activities. Finish writing the work up for journal publications.

Note this timeline is only an example, and the student will discuss and develop these goals with the project supervisors to enable a clear trajectory for the student.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This project will provide close national and international collaboration, in addition to the interaction with the large and interdisciplinary water research group at the University of Birmingham. The student will be co-supervised by researchers at the University of Bristol (Dr Ross Woods) and the University of Lausanne in Switzerland (Prof Bettina Schaefli). This will provide an excellent opportunity to interact and learn from both the large water research group at Bristol, and the hydrology research group in Lausanne.

Further Details

More information on water research at the University of Birmingham (UK) can be found here:


More information on water research at the University of Bristol (UK) can be found here:


More information on the water research at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) can be found here:


For any further questions, please contact:

Dr Joshua Larsen, senior lecturer in water science

School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, United Kingdom.