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Scripps graduate student Jessica Lundquist wins DRI’s 2003 Peter B. Wagner Memorial Award

Winning research paper asks: Will watershed managers be ready when spring comes to the Sierra Nevada?


A Scripps Institution of Oceanography graduate student has won the Desert Research Institute’s Peter B. Wagner Memorial Award for Women in Atmospheric Sciences for her study of factors that determine when, and how fast, the Sierra Nevada snowpack begins to melt in the spring. Jessica Lundquist will receive the Wagner Award’s $1,250 prize at DRI in Reno on Dec. 16 following a presentation of her winning paper, “Spring Onset in the Sierra Nevada: Is snowmelt independent of elevation?”

The annual award was established in 1998 by Nevada Gaming Commissioner and former Nevada Lt. Gov. Sue Wagner in memory of her husband, Peter, a DRI scientist who died in the 1980 crash of a DRI research aircraft. The purpose of the national award is to encourage women graduate students in the atmospheric sciences.

Lundquist’s paper notes that in an “average” year, the onset of Sierra Nevada spring melt is delayed roughly four days for each additional 100 meters in elevation. But in spring of 2002, she says, a phenomenon known as “synchronous spring” occurred in which spring melt from very high elevation glacial cirques commenced simultaneously with that of much lower elevations.

If a synchronous onset occurs late in the spring, when melt-rates are high, flooding can occur, Lundquist says, and the implications for accurate management of Sierra Nevada runoff could be very serious. “What is needed is a much better high elevation monitoring network in Sierra Nevada watersheds to detect these conditions. A realistic description of elevational distribution and timing of snow accumulation, melt, and runoff is crucial to successfully model basin-scale snowmelt and spring streamflow.

“Understanding elevational effects becomes increasingly important with the prospect of global warming,” she adds. “Over the next 50 years, it is estimated that, in response to projected climate warming of three degrees centigrade, late spring snow accumulation in California would be diminished by one third to one half.”

A Ph.D. candidate who hopes to graduate next spring, Lundquist works with a group of leading climatologists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who have been focusing on the likely responses of West Coast and Sierra Nevada weather patterns if climatic warming trends continue.

Applicants for the Wagner Award must be pursuing an advanced degree in a program of atmospheric sciences or a related field and must submit a paper based on original research directly related to the identification, clarification, and/or resolution of an atmospheric or climatic problem.

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