Unprecedented levels of tree mortality from insect infestation and wildfire are dramatically altering forest structure and composition in Western North America. Warming temperatures and increased drought stress have been implicated as major factors in the increasing spatial extent and frequency of these forest disturbances, but it is unclear how these changes in forest structure will interact with ongoing climate change to affect snowmelt water resources either for society or for ecosystem recovery following mortality. Because surface discharge, groundwater recharge, and ecosystem productivity all depend on seasonal snowmelt, a critical knowledge gap exists not only in predicting discharge, but in quantifying spatial and temporal variability in the partitioning of snowfall into abiotic vapor loss, plant available water, recharge, and streamflow within the complex mosaic of forest disturbance and topography that characterizes western mountain catchments.
This presentation will address this knowledge gap by synthesizing recent work on snowpack dynamics and ecosystem productivity from seasonally snow-covered forests along a climate gradient from Arizona to Wyoming; including undisturbed sites, recently burned forests, and areas of extensive insect-induced forest mortality. Both before-after and control-impacted studies of forest disturbance on snow accumulation and ablation suggest that the spatial scale of snow distribution increases following disturbance, but net snow water input in a warming climate will increase only in topographically sheltered areas. While forest disturbance changes spatial scale of snowpack partitioning, the amount and especially the timing of snow cover accumulation and ablation are strongly related to interannual variability in ecosystem productivity with both earlier snowmelt and later snow accumulation associated with decreased carbon uptake. Empirical analyses and modeling are being developed to identify landscapes most sensitive to climate change as well as to develop management alternatives that minimize the effects of disturbance on high elevation forests and the services of water provision and carbon storage they provide.
Brooks P.D., Harpold A.A., Biederman J.A., Gochis D.J., Litvak M.E., Ewers B.E., Broxton P.D., Reed D.E. (2013): Non-linear Feedbacks Between Forest Mortality and Climate Change: Implications for Snow Cover, Water Resources, and Ecosystem Recovery in Western North America (Invited). Abstract C51D-06 presented at 2013 Fall Meeting, AGU, San Francisco, CA, 9-13 Dec..