Study: Early snowmelt may lead to more wildfires

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Heavy mountain snowpack in April 2014

Heavy mountain snowpack in April of 2014.

BOULDER, Colo. (KDVR) — A new study from the University of Colorado Boulder has uncovered a concerning trend in Colorado’s snow melt.

A 40-year compilation of data shows that the western United States snowpack is increasingly melting in the winter months. This premature melt impacts many Colorado activities ranging from skiing to agriculture.

The study’s findings come from data gathered by automated snowpack stations, fluid-filled metal pockets, tucked on the ground and out of sight. There are 1,065 of these stations measuring snowpack melt in the western U.S.

The automated snowpack stations have detected a wide-spread melting snowpack, which means there is greater potential for flooding. The early snow melt in winter keeps the soil wet, and in turn, the soil cannot absorb more moisture. This leads to flooding.

On the other end of the spectrum, early snowpack melt means less moisture to keep wildfires at bay in July and August, leading to wildfire seasons like that of 2020.

“That slow trickle of meltwater that reliably occurs over the dry season is something that we have built our entire water infrastructure on in the West,” said Keith Musselman, lead author in the study. Musselman said the western U.S. relies heavily on the steady snowmelt in the summer months.

Information gathered from all 1,065 automated snowpack stations were used in the study. Musselman said the data gathered by these automated stations will benefit our understanding of climate.

“These automated stations can be really helpful to understand potential climate change impacts on our resources,” said Musselman

 Musselman’s study on snowpack melt can be found in Nature Climate Change.

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