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Accounting for fine-scale forest structure is necessary to model snowpack mass and energy budgets in montane forests

November 17, 2021

Accurately modeling the effects of variable forest structure and change on snow distribution and persistence is critical to water resource management. The resolution of many snow models is too coarse to represent heterogeneous canopy structure in forests, and therefore, most models simplify forest effects on snowpack mass and energy budgets. To quantify the loss of snowpack prediction from simplifications of forest canopy-mediated processes, we applied a high-resolution energy balance snowpack model at two forested sites at a fine (1 m2) and coarse (100 m2) spatial resolution. Simulating open and forested areas separately, as is done in many land surface models (LSMs), leads to biases between the coarse and fine-scale simulations because there is no representation of areas that are near (e.g., <15 m from) trees but with no overhead canopy, which are common in forests of low to medium tree density. Consistent with previous LSM intercomparisons, the coarser simulations predict greater under-canopy radiation (by 30%–80% at our sites), faster snow ablation (by almost 2×), and earlier snow disappearance (by 1–22 days). Many of these biases are reduced dramatically or eliminated when canopy edge environments are considered in the coarser simulations. Furthermore, remaining disagreement between the 100-m and 1-m models can be partially explained by using a combination of tree height, canopy cover, and canopy edginess (which together can explain 46%–96% of remaining model biases). The lack of information about canopy edges and other fine-scale forest structure characteristics in many current LSMs may limit their reliability for simulating forest disturbance.