Journal or chapter

Characterising spatio-temporal variability in seasonal snow cover at a regional scale from MODIS data: the Clutha Catchment

Hydrology & Earth System Sciences (2019)

A 16-year series of daily snow-covered area (SCA) for 2000–2016 is derived from MODIS imagery to produce a regional-scale snow cover climatology for New Zealand’s largest catchment, the Clutha Catchment.

Filling a geographic gap in observations of seasonal snow, this record provides a basis for understanding spatio-temporal variability in seasonal snow cover and, combined with climatic data, provides insight into controls on variability. Seasonal snow cover metrics including daily SCA, mean snow cover duration (SCD), annual SCD anomaly and daily snowline elevation (SLE) were derived and assessed for temporal trends. Modes of spatial variability were characterised, whilst also preserving temporal signals by applying raster principal component analysis (rPCA) to maps of annual SCD anomaly. Sensitivity of SCD to temperature and precipitation variability was assessed in a semi-distributed way for mountain ranges across the catchment. The influence of anomalous winter air flow, as characterised by HYSPLIT back-trajectories, on SCD variability was also assessed.

On average, SCA peaks in late June, at around 30 % of the catchment area, with 10 % of the catchment area sustaining snow cover for > 120 d yr−1. A persistent mid-winter reduction in SCA, prior to a second peak in August, is attributed to the prevalence of winter blocking highs in the New Zealand region. In contrast to other regions globally, no significant decrease in SCD was observed, but substantial spatial and temporal variability was present. rPCA identified six distinct modes of spatial variability, characterising 77 % of the observed variability in SCD.

This analysis of SCD anomalies revealed strong spatio-temporal variability beyond that associated with topographic controls, which can result in snow cover conditions being out of phase across the catchment. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that the sensitivity of SCD to temperature and precipitation variability varies significantly across the catchment.

While two large-scale climate modes, the SOI and SAM, fail to explain observed variability, specific spatial modes of SCD are favoured by anomalous airflow from the NE, E and SE.

These findings illustrate the complexity of atmospheric controls on SCD within the catchment and support the need to incorporate atmospheric processes that govern variability of the energy balance, as well as the re-distribution of snow by wind in order to improve the modelling of future changes in seasonal snow.


Snow, ice and glaciers in our changing climate