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ABSTRACT

Seasonal snowpack in forested lands is the primary source of fresh water in western North America, where mountain pine beetle (MPB) infestation has resulted in rapid and extensive tree die-off. Forests significantly influence the amount and spatial distribution of peak seasonal snowpack, but the impacts of large-scale tree mortality on the processes controlling peak snowpack are not well understood. We evaluate the effects of widespread tree mortality on winter snow accumulation and peak seasonal snowpack across multiple spatial scales and several levels of MPB impact in the Central Rocky Mountains. Observations for winters 2010 and 2011 include continuous snow depths in 20 plots, distributed snow surveys at peak accumulation and climate observations above and below canopy including precipitation, temperature, humidity, wind and shortwave radiation. Stable water isotopes were observed for fresh snowfall and for snowpack. Plot-scale snowfall observations showed 20% lower interception (p < 0.05) in grey-phase stands (needles lost) than in unimpacted stands. However, distributed snow surveys found no differences in peak seasonal snow water equivalent between unimpacted and grey-phase stands. Water isotopes of snowpack from MPB-killed stands indicated kinetic fractionation; enriched values demonstrated higher winter snowpack sublimation in MPB-killed forest. Following MPB infestation, reduced canopy sublimation of intercepted snow appeared to be compensated by increased snowpack sublimation, consistent with observations of higher snowpack insolation. Consequently, the effects of widespread tree mortality on peak seasonal snowpack, which is crucial for downstream water resources, will be influenced by compensation for lower interception by higher snowpack sublimation. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.