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Climate Change Deters Northeast Snow Cover

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Increasing global warming has started to take a toll over the snow cover in the northern hemisphere which has started melting due to unregularized warm air pressure.

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.

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.

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