text-only page produced automatically by LIFT Text Transcoder Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation Home National Science Foundation - Geosciences (GEO)
Geosciences (GEO)
design element
GEO Home
About GEO
Funding Opportunities
Awards
News
Events
Discoveries
Publications
Advisory Committee
Career Opportunities
GEO Education Program
See Additional GEO Resources
View GEO Staff
GEO Organizations
Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences (AGS)
Earth Sciences (EAR)
Ocean Sciences (OCE)
Polar Programs (PLR)
Proposals and Awards
Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide
  Introduction
Proposal Preparation and Submission
bullet Grant Proposal Guide
  bullet Grants.gov Application Guide
Award and Administration
bullet Award and Administration Guide
Award Conditions
Other Types of Proposals
Merit Review
NSF Outreach
Policy Office
Additional GEO Resources
GEO Advisory Cmte Report on Ocean Drilling, 2012
GEO Vision, A Report of AC-GEO (10/09)
Strategic Framework for Topical Areas, 2012 (Follow on to GEO Vision)
GEO Education & Diversity Program
GEO Innovation
GEO Data Policies
Follow GEO on Twitter
U.S. Global Change Research Program
Merit Review Broader Impacts Criterion: Representative Activities
Other Site Features
Special Reports
Research Overviews
Multimedia Gallery
Classroom Resources
NSF-Wide Investments

Email this pagePrint this page

Discovery
Earth Week: The Search for White Gold--Snowmelt

Thin snowpack puts ecosystems and water resources in critical condition

Image of melting snow and the text Photo Gallery

The search for white gold--snowmelt--in a photo gallery.
Credit and Larger Version

April 16, 2013

The following is Part Twelve in a series on the National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. Visit Parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, thirteen, fourteenfifteen and sixteen.

The following is also Part Six in a series on the National Science Foundation's Critical Zone Observatories (CZO) Network. Visit part one, part two, part three, part four, part fivepart seven and part eight.

An American exodus, it's been called, the largest "migration" of people in modern U.S. history.

It happened during the 1930s Dust Bowl, when severe drought conditions coupled with erosion brought about an environmental catastrophe. Choking dust storms caused major economic, ecological and agricultural damage in Texas, Oklahoma and parts of New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.

Ill winds blew across fields, plucking deep-rooted grasses and carrying them hundreds of miles. Farmlands disappeared and homes were destroyed. These "black blizzards" swirled all the way to East Coast cities such as New York and Washington.

On April 14, 1935--"Black Sunday"--20 of the worst of the storms turned day into night. More than 500,000 people were left homeless. Most headed due west in search of work. Some, victims of dust pneumonia or malnutrition, never made it.

For today's residents of states like Colorado, that scene is long ago and far away. Or is it? On Earth Week, with much of the Mountain West in an extreme drought, people in the Four Corners are wondering.

The search for white gold

The answer lies in white gold: snowmelt.

"Snow and its meltwaters are indeed white gold, and they're getting harder and harder to find," says Mark Williams, an ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in Colorado.

In western North America, snow typically begins to fall in November. It piles up, reaching its peak in April. In the Rocky Mountains region, 85 percent of the water resources come from snow as it eventually melts.

At Niwot Ridge, ecologists are prospecting for white gold, no easy task at 9,800 feet up.

Niwot Ridge is one of 26 NSF LTER sites in mountain, prairie, coastal and other ecosystems around the world. The sites are primarily supported by NSF's Directorate for Biological Sciences, with major additional funding from its Directorate for Geosciences.

Niwot Ridge is part of the Boulder Creek, Colorado, watershed, where scientists at NSF's Boulder Creek Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) are also looking for white gold.

Their search takes them into Earth's critical zone--the region between the top of the forest canopy and the base of unweathered rock. Boulder Creek is one of six such NSF CZOs in watersheds across the country.

"The depth of winter's snowpack and timing of spring snowmelt determine how much water we will have the following summer," says Williams, who is also affiliated with the Boulder Creek CZO, "and the extent of a drought that's the most severe since the Dust Bowl."

It's 2013, not 1935. But farmers are again asking whether there will be enough water for their fields.

Water well running dry

At Niwot Ridge and Boulder Creek, scientists face howling winter winds to measure snow depth.

Without deep snows, the researchers are discovering, our water well is running dry.

"Water is critical for recharging soil moisture, keeping plants alive and replenishing stream networks," says Williams. "Those streams and rivers are what feed our reservoirs."

Water in all its forms--vapor, liquid and solid--distinguishes our planet, says John Wingfield, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences.

"Much remains to be learned about the complex biological processes, and interactions of the biosphere and geosphere, in snow and ice cover," Wingfield says. "Large-scale shifts of snow and ice fields will have major downstream effects. The implications for ecosystems even far removed from high altitude and latitude snow and ice are unknown."

To find answers, Williams, Suzanne Anderson, principal investigator of the Boulder Creek CZO, and colleagues recently conducted a study of water flow on hillslopes of the Colorado Front Range. They published the results in the journal Hydrological Processes.

Other authors of the paper are Eve-Lyn Hinckley and Robert Anderson of the University of Colorado Boulder, Brian Ebel of the U.S. Geological Survey and Rebecca Barnes of Bard College. Hinckley is the lead author.

"The interaction of climate and ecosystems is an example of the critical questions that lie at the interface between scientific disciplines," says Roger Wakimoto, NSF assistant director for Geosciences. "The results from this study will greatly improve our understanding of the hydrologic cycle."

The research, conducted in the headwaters of the Rockies, shows that higher temperatures are shifting the timing of maximum snow accumulation ever earlier and decreasing the ratio of snow-to-rain.

"It's raining a heck of a lot more than it used to," says Williams. "In times past, it did nothing but snow."

A flash-in-the-pan, rain is gone more quickly than snow. Within hours of falling, it evaporates or seeps into the ground, and doesn't have snow's longer residence time on mountainsides.

"The slow melt of mountain snow is what keeps streams and rivers running like spigots turned on," says Williams. "Eventually, they lead right to the taps in our kitchens, bathrooms and yards."

Where, exactly, does the white gold come from?

As scientists at Niwot Ridge and Boulder Creek have discovered, the mother lode is hidden in snow "water towers."

"Water towers" for the Mountain West--and beyond

Mountain ecosystems serve as "water towers" that store winter snow until it's released during spring runoff.

The water towers, however, have sprung leaks.

Sub-alpine forests are becoming warmer and drier during all seasons. At higher elevations, alpine tundra has longer growing seasons, warmer summers, and cool and wet versus cold and snowy winters.

How long a snowpack lasts is affected by what scientists call aspect: whether a hillslope faces north or south.

In the Rockies, lodgepole pines, which prefer colder, wetter climes, dot north-facing slopes; Ponderosa pines cover south-facing, drier slopes.

"You can pretty well guess how much snow a slope will have by which way it faces," says Williams, "and by which tree species grows there."

A tale of two trees

Lodgepole pine-covered, north-facing slopes are usually laden with snow straight through the winter. South-facing slopes, with their Ponderosa pines, have only intermittent snow.

"North- and south-facing slopes at the Boulder Creek CZO are an excellent natural laboratory for studying the effects of climate change on water availability and soil geochemistry," says Enriqueta Barrera, NSF program director for the CZO network, supported by the agency's Directorate for Geosciences.

Williams agrees. "North-facing slopes store more water in the 'near-surface' than south-facing slopes," he says. "On south-facing slopes, water sinks quickly into the deep bedrock."

Earlier snowmelt may be changing those patterns, "which could have consequences for the health and composition of the forest," Williams says, and for water resources.

"Research at sites such as the Niwot Ridge LTER shows how catastrophic large-scale shifts in snowmelt will be," says Saran Twombly, NSF program director for the LTER network.

Lack of snow, for example, led to forest fires like Colorado's High Park fire in June, 2012, and the Waldo Canyon fire less than a month later. The Waldo Canyon fire was the most expensive wildfire in Colorado history. It was also the most destructive.

"White blizzard" falling

It's April 8, 2013: date of the average peak snowpack in the Colorado mountains. Despite this winter's snow drought, the day, perhaps, of a good omen.

"Heavy snow will blanket much of the West," intoned weather forecasters. Blizzard watches went up. Snowplows, fallow too long, once again geared down.

When all was said and done, more than a foot of snow fell across high peaks and low prairies.

It sparkled across the land, until spring sunlight turned it into a precious commodity: white gold.

--  Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734 cdybas@nsf.gov

Related Websites
NSF Publication: Discoveries in Long-Term Ecological Research: http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2013/nsf13083/nsf13083.pdf?WT.mc_id=USNSF_25&WT.mc_ev=click
NSF Publication: Discoveries in Sustainability: http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2012/disco12001/disco12001.pdf
NSF LTER Network: http://www.lternet.edu
NSF CZO Network: http://criticalzone.org/national/
NSF CZO Discovery Article: High-Peak Creeks, Forest Fires and Landscape Erosion: Could They Be Linked?: http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=126540&org=NSF
NSF News Release: How Is Earth's Water System Linked With Land Use, Climate Change and Ecosystems?: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=125434&org=NSF&from=news

Researcher with snow blower
View Video
Scientists work in blizzard conditions at NSF's Niwot Ridge LTER site in Colorado.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of rsearchers in a snow blizzard
View Video
Snow, and plenty of it, in Colorado's high peaks--but for how long?
Credit and Larger Version

Researchers register high-elevation snowfall on top a snowy mountain in Colorado.
Tracking high-elevation snowfall at NSF's Niwot Ridge LTER site in Colorado.
Credit and Larger Version

Researchers in a snow blizzard
Facing blizzard conditions, researchers prepare to measure high-peak snow properties.
Credit and Larger Version

Scientist Mark Williams samples snow with help from Katya Hafich and Kendall Gotthelf.
Scientist Mark Williams samples snow with help from Katya Hafich and Kendall Gotthelf.
Credit and Larger Version

Girl holding a pika in the mountains
How will alpine species such as pikas fare in a warmer world? Biologists are finding out.
Credit and Larger Version

Mountain wildflowers in bloom
Spring has sprung: Mountain wildflowers are bellwethers of climate change.
Credit and Larger Version



Email this pagePrint this page
Back to Top of page