Rain-on-snow events in Alaska, their frequency and distribution from satellite observations

Caleb G. Pan, Peter B. Kirchner, John S. Kimball, Youngwook Kim, Jinyang Du

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Wet snow and the icing events that frequently follow wintertime rain-on-snow (ROS) affect high latitude ecosystems at multiple spatial and temporal scales, including hydrology, carbon cycle, wildlife, and human development. However, the distribution of ROS events and their response to climatic changes are uncertain. In this study, we quantified ROS spatiotemporal variability across Alaska during the cold season (November to March) and clarified the influence of precipitation and temperature variations on these patterns. A satellite-based daily ROS geospatial classification was derived for the region by combining remote sensing information from overlapping MODIS and AMSR sensor records. The ROS record extended over the recent satellite record (water years 2003-2011 and 2013-2016) and was derived at a daily time step and 6 km grid, benefiting from finer (500 m) resolution MODIS snow cover observations and coarser (12.5 km) AMSR microwave brightness temperature-based freeze-thaw retrievals. The classification showed favorable ROS detection accuracy (75%-100%) against in situ climate observations across Alaska. Pixel-wise correlation analysis was used to clarify relationships between the ROS patterns and underlying physiography and climatic influences. Our findings indicate that cold season ROS events are most common during autumn and spring months along the maritime Bering Sea coast and boreal interior regions, but are infrequent on the colder arctic North Slope. The frequency and extent of ROS events coincided with warm temperature anomalies (p < 0.1), but showed a generally weaker relationship with precipitation. The weaker precipitation relationship was attributed to several factors, including large uncertainty in cold season precipitation measurements, and the important contribution of humidity and turbulent energy transfer in driving snowmelt and icing events independent of rainfall. Our results suggest that as high latitude temperatures increase, wet snow and ROS events will also increase in frequency and extent, particularly in the southwestern and interior regions of Alaska.

Original languageEnglish
Article number075004
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 6 2018


  • AMSR
  • Alaska
  • Arctic boreal vulnerability experiment (ABoVE)
  • Climate change
  • Rain-on-snow
  • Remote sensing


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