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Estimating the effects of forest structure changes from wildfire on snow water resources under varying meteorological conditions

October 29, 2020

Modeling forest change effects on snow is critical to resource management. However, many models either do not appropriately model canopy structure or cannot represent fine‐scale changes in structure following a disturbance. We applied a 1 m2 resolution energy budget snowpack model at a forested site in New Mexico, USA, affected by a wildfire, using input data from lidar to represent prefire and postfire canopy conditions. Both scenarios were forced with 37 years of equivalent meteorology to simulate the effect of fire‐mediated canopy change on snowpack under varying meteorology. Postfire, the simulated snow distribution was substantially altered, and despite an overall increase in snow, 32% of the field area displayed significant decreases, resulting in higher snowpack variability. The spatial differences in snow were correlated with the change in several direction‐based forest structure metrics (aspect‐based canopy edginess and gap area). Locations with decreases in snow following the fire were on southern aspects that transitioned to south facing canopy edges, canopy gaps that increased in size to the south, or where large trees were removed. Locations with largest increases in snow occurred where all canopy was removed. Changes in canopy density metrics, typically used in snow models to represent the forest, did not fully explain the effects of fire on snow distribution. This explains why many models are not able to represent greater postfire variability in snow distribution and tend to predict only increases in snowpack following a canopy disturbance event despite observational studies showing both increases and decreases.