What’s Going On with Alpine Water?

IC-01 Alpine Hydrology – understanding snow science, water, and climate change in alpine environments

 

Tour leader Kelly Elder shows tree cores that illustrate differences in tree growth rates due to elevation. Source: Bill Elliot
Tour leader Kelly Elder shows tree cores that illustrate differences in tree growth rates due to elevation. Source: Bill Elliot

The Wasatch Range of Utah was the perfect place for tour participants to discuss impacts of large-scale tree mortality. The central topic of this tour was the hydrological and hazard impacts of the beetle epidemic, with some specific notes on snow related processes, including avalanches. The tour explored Little Cottonwood Canyon, and stops included the Snowbird and Alta ski areas, which have long, important histories in avalanche research and mitigation.

Mountainous western North America, and considerable portions of the flatlands surrounding the mountains, rely on snowfall and subsequent snowmelt runoff for municipal, agricultural, and industrial water supply. The mountain snowpack behaves as a natural reservoir, accumulating snow, which is stored until positive springtime energy balance releases the water through melt processes.

Weather, topography, vegetation and land use all control the snow accumulation and melt processes, which vary greatly spatially and temporally. Over the last decade western North America has suffered a widespread infestation of tree-killing insects. The mountain pine beetle has been responsible for millions of acres of dead lodgepole pine forests and spruce beetles are beginning to exhibit a similar impact. Catastrophic forest changes have known and unknown hydrologic, biogeochemical, environmental, economic, and social impacts, to name a few.

View from the Snowbird Tram with the Spyglass App showing the location, elevation, azimuth, and slope steepness from the top to the bottom. Source: Bill Elliot
View from the Snowbird Tram with the Spyglass App showing the location, elevation, azimuth, and slope steepness from the top to the bottom. Source: Bill Elliot

 

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