Snow Drought: Recognizing and Understanding its Impacts in Alaska

Oct 2016 to Sep 2018

In Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, snow plays a crucial role in atmospheric and hydrologic systems and has a major influence on the health and function of regional ecosystems. Warming temperatures may have a significant impact on snow and may therefore affect the entire water cycle of the region. A decrease in precipitation in the form of snow, or “snow drought”, can manifest in several ways including changes to total snowfall amounts, snow accumulation, and the timing/length of the snow season. Understanding these changes is then critical for understanding and predicting a variety of climate impacts to wildlife and ecosystems. However, little research has been conducted to date to understand how this change may impact high-latitude ecosystems, and, unfortunately, traditional methods used by scientists to measure and characterize drought do not apply to snowfall-dominated areas.
This project seeks to address this lack of information by determining the most effective definitions of “snow drought” in Alaska, exploring the features and events that indicate the occurrence of snow drought, understanding the gaps between how we measure snow at single locations via gauges (meteorological snow drought) vs. snowpack conditions (hydrological snow drought), and determining how land cover and terrain affect the susceptibility of an area to snow drought.

This project will use existing datasets (e.g. ground observations, remote sensing, and computer models) to understand the arrival and departure of snowpack and the speed that the snow is melting, and to observe how changing landscapes and ecosystems, including the occurrence of fire, might be impacting snow accumulation and melt.