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An evaluation of methods for determining during-storm precipitation phase and the rain/snow transition elevation at the surface in a mountain basin

Marks, D., Winstral, A., Reba, M., Pomeroy, J., Kumar, M.
Advances in water resources 2013 v.55 pp. 98-110
air temperature, dewpoint, environmental factors, humidity, hydrologic models, mountains, prediction, rain, snow, storms, water resources, watersheds, wind, Idaho
Determining surface precipitation phase is required to properly correct precipitation gage data for wind effects, to determine the hydrologic response to a precipitation event, and for hydrologic modeling when rain will be treated differently from snow. In this paper we present a comparison of several methods for determining precipitation phase using 12years of hourly precipitation, weather and snow data from a long-term measurement site at Reynolds Mountain East (RME), a headwater catchment within the Reynolds Creek Experimental Watershed (RCEW), in the Owyhee Mountains of Idaho, USA. Methods are based on thresholds of (1) air temperature (Ta) at 0°C, (2) dual Ta threshold, −1 to 3°C, (3) dewpoint temperature (Td) at 0°C, and (4) wet bulb temperature (Tw) at 0°C. The comparison shows that at the RME Grove site, the dual threshold approach predicts too much snow, while Ta, Td and Tw are generally similar predicting equivalent snow volumes over the 12year-period indicating that during storms the cloud level is at or close to the surface at this location. To scale up the evaluation of these methods we evaluate them across a 380m elevation range in RCEW during a large mixed-phase storm event. The event began as snow at all elevations and over the course of 4h transitioned to rain at the lowest through highest elevations. Using 15-minute measurements of precipitation, changes in snow depth (zs), Ta, Td and Tw, at seven sites through this elevation range, we found precipitation phase linked to the during-storm surface humidity. By measuring humidity along an elevation gradient during the storm we are able to track changes in Td to reliably estimate precipitation phase and effectively track the elevation of the rain/snow transition during the event.