Climate change is shrinking winter snowpack, which harms Northeast forests year-round

Climate change often conjures up images of heat, drought and hurricanes. But according to the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment, released on Nov. 23, 2018, winters have warmed three times faster than summers in the Northeast in recent years. These changes are also producing significant effects.

Historically, over 50 percent of the northern hemisphere has had snow cover in winter. Now warmer temperatures are reducing the depth and duration of winter snow cover. Many people assume that winter is a dormant time for organisms in cold climates, but decades of research now show that winter climate conditions – particularly snowpack – are important regulators of the health of forest ecosystems and organisms that live in them.

In particular, our work over the last decade shows that declining snow cover may impair tree health and reduce forests’ ability to filter air and water. Our latest study finds that continued winter warming could greatly reduce snow cover across the northeastern United States, causing large declines in tree growth and forest carbon storage.

Changes in snowmelt-related streamflow timing for rivers, 1960-2014, show that snow is melting earlier in the year in the Northeast. USGCRP/NCA4

Snow as a blanket

We study northern hardwood forests, which are dominated by sugar maple, yellow birch and American beech trees and span 85,000 square miles, from Minnesota and south-central Canada east to the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the northeastern United States. These forests are famed for their vibrant fall colors. They generate revenue by drawing tourists, hikers, hunters and campers, and support timber and maple syrup industries. They also provide important ecological services, such as storing carbon and maintaining water and air quality.

When winter encroaches on this region, with temperatures often dipping well below freezing, every species needs insulation to cope. Tree roots and soil organisms like insects rely on deep snowpack for protection from cold – a literal blanket of snow. Even in sub-zero temperatures, if snow is sufficiently deep, soils can remain unfrozen.

Six decades of research from the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire – one of the longest-running studies anywhere – show that winter snowpack is declining. Research conducted by other scholars indicates that if this trend continues, it will increase the likelihood of soil freeze-thaw cycles, with harmful effects on forest health.

[embedded content] Scientists have used the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest as a living laboratory to study environmental problems since 1963.

Why northern forests need snow

For more than 10 years we have manipulated winter snowpack at Hubbard Brook to study the effects of projected climate change on northern hardwood forests. In early winter, we head outdoors after each snowfall to remove snow from our experimental plots. Then we analyze how losing this insulating layer affects trees and soil.

We have found that in plots where we remove snow, frost penetrates a foot or more down into the soil, while it rarely extends more than two inches deep in nearby reference plots with unaltered snowpack. And just as freeze-thaw cycles create potholes in city streets, soil freezing abrades and kills tree roots and damages those that survive.

This root damage triggers a cascade of ecological responses. Dead roots decompose and stimulate losses of carbon dioxide from the soil. Trees take up fewer nutrients from soil, accumulate the toxic element aluminum in their leaves and produce less branch growth. Nitrogen, a key nutrient, can wash out of soils. Soil insect communities become less abundant and diverse.