Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Snow melts faster under trees than in open areas in mild climates

It’s a foggy fall morning, and University of Washington researcher Susan Dickerson-Lange pokes her index finger into the damp soil beneath a canopy of second-growth conifers. The tree cover is dense here, and little light seeps in among the understory of the Cedar River Municipal Watershed about 30 miles east of Seattle.

She digs a small hole in the leaf-litter soil, then pushes a thumb-sized device, called an iButton, about an inch beneath the surface. If all goes well, this tiny, battery-powered instrument will collect a temperature reading every hour for 11 months. Researchers hope this tool and a handful of other instruments will help them map winter temperatures throughout the watershed as they track snow accumulation and melt.

University of Washington

A mounted camera shows snow sticking in an open area, while it appears to have melted under the trees in dense, second-growth forest just behind.

This fieldwork piggybacks on a recent finding by Jessica Lundquist, a UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and her lab that shows that tree cover actually causes snow to melt more quickly on the western slopes of the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Mountains and other warm, Mediterranean-type climates around the world. Alternatively, open, clear gaps in the forests tend to keep snow on the ground longer into the spring and summer. Lundquist and her colleagues published their findings online this fall in Water Resources Research.

Common sense says that the shade of a tree will help retain snow, and snow exposed to sunlight in open areas will melt. This typically is the case in regions where winter temperatures are below freezing, such as the Northeast, Midwest and most of central and eastern Canada. But in Mediterranean climates – where the average winter temperatures usually are above 30 degrees Fahrenheit – a different phenomenon occurs. Snow tends to melt under the tree canopy and stay more intact in open meadows or gaps in a forest.

This happens in part because trees in warmer, maritime forests radiate heat in the form of long-wave radiation to a greater degree than the sky does. Heat radiating from the trees contributes to snow melting under the canopy first.

“Trees melt our snow, but it lasts longer if you open up some gaps in the forest,” Lundquist said. “The hope is that this paper gives us more of a global framework for how we manage our forests to conserve snowpack.”

For the study, Lundquist examined relevant published research the world over that listed paired snow measurements in neighboring forested and open areas; then she plotted those locations and noted their average winter temperatures. Places with similar winter climates – parts of the Swiss Alps, western Oregon and Washington, and the Sierra Nevada range in California – all had similar outcomes: Snow lasted longer in open areas.

“It’s remarkable that, given all the disparities in these studies, it did sort out by climate,” Lundquist said.

Even in the rainy Pacific Northwest, we depend on yearly snowpack for drinking water and healthy river flows for fish, said Rolf Gersonde, who designs and implements forest restoration projects in the Cedar River Watershed. Reservoirs in the western Cascades hold approximately a year’s supply of water. That means when our snowpack is gone – usually by the summer solstice – our water supply depends on often meager summer rainfall to get us through until fall, he said. Snowpack is a key component of the Northwest’s reservoir storage system, so watershed managers care about how forest changes due to management decisions or natural disturbances may impact that melting timetable.

The UW’s research in the watershed has been a beneficial partnership, researchers say. The 90,000-acre watershed is owned by the City of Seattle and provides drinking water to 1.4 million people. The area now is closed to recreation and commercial logging, but more than 80 percent of the land was logged during the early 20th century, and a large swath of dense, second-growth trees grows there now. Watershed managers have tried thinning and cutting gaps in parts of the forest to encourage more tree and plant diversity – that then leads to more diverse animal habitat – offering the UW a variety of sites to monitor.

The UW researchers acknowledge that temperature is a very broad predictor of snowmelt behavior, yet they expect their theory to hold true as they look more closely at the relationship between climate and snowmelt throughout the Pacific Northwest. They are collaborating with researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Idaho, and are ramping up a citizen science project asking hikers and snowshoers to share snow observations.

“This is really just a start,” said Dickerson-Lange, a doctoral student in Lundquist’s lab who is coordinating the citizen-science observations. “The plan is to refine this model. With climate change, a cold forest now might behave more like a warm forest 100 years from now. We want to be able to plan ahead.”

Co-authors of the recent paper are Nicoleta Cristea of UW civil and environmental engineering and James Lutz of Utah State University.

Funding for the research is from the National Science Foundation.

For more information, contact Lundquist at or 303-497-8257 and Dickerson-Lange at or 253-225-9909. Lundquist is on sabbatical but is reachable by email or phone.

Michelle Ma | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Receding glaciers in Bolivia leave communities at risk
20.10.2016 | European Geosciences Union

nachricht UM researchers study vast carbon residue of ocean life
19.10.2016 | University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>