Do Fewer Trees Mean More Water From Snow Melt?

Nov 27, 2013

In springtime, you might figure snow melts faster out in sunshine than in the shade. But in places with temperate winters, like the Pacific Northwest, it might be just the opposite.

Jessica Lundquist is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington. Her research in the Cascade Mountains shows snow under trees seems to melt faster than snow in clearings. That matters because western states depend on snowpack for their water, especially in early summer. That snowpack is expected to decrease due to climate change. Lundquist says the new research could help water managers manipulate the mountain forests to maximize the snow.

“They could potentially go and open gaps in the forest, which act like little cold holes or reservoirs for snow. And the snow will melt more slowly. In some ways, it can mitigate the effects of climate change,” Lundquist said.

The warming seems to come from the trees themselves, which absorb and re-emit radiation. It only happens when the climate is right; in colder places, the tree warming isn’t enough to melt the snow faster than the sun does. Lundquist said she’s working on refining and mapping the information, so water managers could customize their tree-cutting practices to their given climate.

Copyright 2013 KPLU