Detecting long-term change in seasonal precipitation using ground observations is dependent on the representativity of the point measurement to the surrounding landscape. In mountainous regions, representativity can be poor and lead to large uncertainties in precipitation estimates at high elevations or in areas where observations are sparse. If the uncertainty in the estimate is large compared to the long-term shifts in precipitation, then the change will likely go undetected. In this analysis, we examine the minimum detectable change across mountainous terrain in western Montana, USA. We ask the question: What is the minimum amount of change that is necessary to be detected using our best estimates of precipitation in complex terrain? We evaluate the spatial uncertainty in the precipitation estimates by conditioning historic regional climate model simulations to ground observations using Bayesian inference. By using this uncertainty as a null hypothesis, we test for detectability across the study region. To provide context for the detectability calculations, we look at a range of future scenarios from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 (CMIP5) multimodel ensemble downscaled to 4 km resolution using the MACAv2-METDATA data set. When using the ensemble averages we find that approximately 65% of the significant increases in winter precipitation go undetected at midelevations. At high elevation, approximately 75% of significant increases in winter precipitation are undetectable. Areas where change can be detected are largely controlled by topographic features. Elevation and aspect are key characteristics that determine whether or not changes in winter precipitation can be detected. Furthermore, we find that undetected increases in winter precipitation at high elevation will likely remain as snow under climate change scenarios. Therefore, there is potential for these areas to offset snowpack loss at lower elevations and confound the effects of climate change on water resources.
- complex terrain