At higher elevations in the western U.S., seasonal snow accumulation provides the primary source of water input to the terrestrial ecosystem and 60 million people. Recent changes in climate and vegetation cover (e.g. fire suppression, bark beetle infestation, fire) have potentially large, yet unrealized implications for water availability and ecosystem health.

CWEST Participants: Noah Molotch, Mark Williams, Laura Kueppers, John Knowles and Taylor Winchell

Forest Structure and Snow Interactions

Forest Structure and Snow Interactions

Forest structure change after a fire. Photo credit: Emily Baker

Forest structure has profound effects on snow accumulation and snowmelt via interception, attenuation of solar radiation, and other processes. Through an integrated observing and modeling approach, this project is investigating the impact on annual, decadal and long-term forest dynamics on snowmelt dynamics and water resources. The approach focuses on rates of snow accumulation and snowmelt in open versus sub-canopy conditions across an elevational gradient.


Impacts of Measurements

Ultrasonic Snow Depth Sensors

Grad student, Dominik Schneider, wiring ultrasonic snow depth sensors mid-winter as part of an effort to understand how canopy controls snow accumulation and ablation. Steamboat Springs, CO. Winter 2013. Photo credit: Dominik Schneider

Patterns of snow accumulation and snowmelt are highly variable in mountainous regions, varying with topography, climate, and vegetation. This project will use measurements of snow depth and other water-related variables in different types of mountain forests to investigate the ecological impacts of potential changes in snowmelt and water availability. The measurements will be used to improve models that estimate solar radiation and snowmelt, providing the tools needed to predict ecosystem response to changes in climate or land cover. In this regard, the project will improve understanding of the linkages between snowpack processes and land cover changes. This project extends to collaborators working at the Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research site and other highland systems. Further, the distribution of snowmelt in these systems dominates water inputs and therefore exerts a strong control on the rate of soil erosion and mineral weathering, affording collaborations with the earth surface and geomorphology communities via NSF’s Boulder Creek Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) network with implications for cross-CZO research.

For more information please visit the Niwot Ridge LTER Website, and the Boulder Creek CZO website.