Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

On the exchange of sensible and latent heat between the atmosphere and melting snow

February 20, 2018

The snow energy balance is difficult to measure during the snowmelt period, yet critical for predictions of water yield in regions characterized by snow cover. Robust simplifications of the snowmelt energy balance can aid our understanding of water resources in a changing climate. Research to date has demonstrated that the net turbulent flux (FT) between a melting snowpack and the atmosphere is negligible if the sum of atmospheric vapor pressure (ea) and temperature (Ta) equals a constant, but it is unclear how frequently this situation holds across different sites. Here, we quantified the contribution of FT to the snowpack energy balance during 59 snowmelt periods across 11 sites in the FLUXNET2015 database with a detailed analysis of snowmelt in subarctic tundra near Abisko, Sweden. At the Abisko site we investigated the frequency of occurrences during which sensible heat flux (H) and latent heat flux (λE) are of (approximately) equal but opposite sign, and if the sum of these terms, FT, is therefore negligible during the snowmelt period. H approximately equaled -λE for less than 50% of the melt period and FT was infrequently a trivial term in the snowmelt energy balance at Abisko. The reason is that the relationship between observed ea and Ta is roughly orthogonal to the “line of equality” at which H equals -λE as warmer Ta during the melt period usually resulted in greater ea. This relationship holds both within melt periods at individual sites and across different sites in the FLUXNET2015 database, where FTcomprised less than 20% of the energy available to melt snow, Qm, in 44% of the snowmelt periods studied here. FT/Qm was significantly related to the mean ea during the melt period, but not mean Ta, and FT tended to be near 0 W m−2 when ea averaged ca. 0.5 kPa. FT may become an increasingly important term in the snowmelt energy balance across many global regions as warmer temperatures are projected to cause snow to melt more slowly and earlier in the year under conditions of lower net radiation (Rn). Eddy covariance research networks such as Ameriflux must improve their ability to observe cold-season processes to enhance our understanding of water resources and surface-atmosphere exchange in a changing climate.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2018
Title On the exchange of sensible and latent heat between the atmosphere and melting snow
DOI 10.1016/j.agrformet.2018.01.028
Authors Paul C. Stoy, Erich H. Peitzsch, David J. A. Wood, Daniel Rottinghaus, Georg Wohlfahrt, Michael Goulden, Helen Ward
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Agricultural and Forest Meteorology
Series Number
Index ID 70195514
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center