Thursday, April 2, 2015

Translating Snow Patterns into Water Science

Dr. Kevin Hyde, a researcher in the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG), is conducting a snow survey high in the Snowy Mountains.  The survey will map snowfall in an area located within the Medicine Bow National Forest to answer questions about how snow melts and then moves through the environment to become stream flow. 

A key component of the study is to better understand how the pine beetle epidemic has changed the environment.  Pine beetles are a natural part of the forest ecosystem, but periodically climate conditions will favor an outbreak.  While extended cold weather kills the beetles, drought makes trees less resistant, so warm winters contribute to epidemics.

A topographical map of the snow survey terrain.
Pine beetles, like many species of bark beetle, carry a deadly fungus that disrupts a tree’s ability to consume water by blocking its ‘pores’ and clogging its ‘veins.’  Trees are ‘water drinkers,’ pulling water from the soil. The fungus prevents water from moving through the tree, and thereby kills it. The study will analyze how changes to the forest due to tree die-off impact snow distribution.

Needles and leaves on trees make up the canopy of a forest and intercept snow and rain before it hits the ground.  Fewer trees could mean more snow and rain will reach the ground; potentially providing more water in the soil, but there are some complications to consider.  With fewer pine trees,  snow can be more exposed to wind and sun.  This speeds up a process called sublimation, which is when the snow turns to gas and water vapor and ice crystals and blows away. 

The snow survey expedition heads out on April 11, with five groups of four surveying 21 sites in all.  To select sites, Hyde said they, “set up a grid system and ended up with 21 cells in the grid.  Then we randomly chose a point in each square where the survey would be made.”  This way of selecting sites is called a stratified random process, and it allows researchers to have a manageable study area while still looking at a variety of conditions.

Ranjan Shamila, undergraduate research assistant, 
and Ian Hyde (Kevin’s son), WyCEHG field technician, 
at Chimney Park.
Once the group arrives at their destination, they split into two teams.  One team measures the depth of the snow, and the other team digs a snow pit down to the soil and takes snow samples at every ten centimeters of depth.  In addition, they will measure water density in each sample, and study the layering of the snowpack, which gives information about changes in the snowpack over time and temperature. Other members of the WyCEHG team will test for naturally-occurring isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen to better understand how water travels within an environment.

Hyde is looking forward to the expedition, and to having the chance to share information about the life of the mountainside ecosystem.  “I am keenly interested in being a science translator and telling the story.  I have a service obligation to explain what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”  

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