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SNAPSHOT: Forests and Snowpack

Snow acts like a blanket for soil and roots in winter. Now scientists have found that less snow —a result of climate change —will likely decrease tree growth in northern hardwood forests.

The study, led by Andrew Reinmann, professor at Hunter College and researcher at the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY, appears in Global Change Biology. The paper was co-authored by researchers at Boston University and the Southwest Watershed Research Center.

Snowfall blankets a forest

The predicted change could also impact the economy of the region, which stretches from Minnesota to the northeastern U.S. and into Canada. “Declines in snow will likely harm the skiing and snowmobiling industries,” Reinmann said, while the decline of sugar maple trees “could hinder the maple products industry and the tourism associated with fall foliage.”

The researchers examined sugar maple trees in an experimental forest in New Hampshire. For five years they removed snow from their plots in early winter. The maples grew 40 percent less than usual in the first two years. Growth rates remained lowered for the rest of the study.

Climate models also suggest that areas with snowpack will shrink dramatically. “While today 33,000 square miles of forests across the region typically have snowpack for several months, by 2100 this area could shrink to a patch of less than 2,000 square miles,” Reinmann said.

With colleagues at Boston University, Reinmann is now investigating whether the adverse effects of warmer winters could be offset by longer and warmer growing seasons. Early results, he says, suggest the two will not cancel each other out.