The impact of pine beetle infestation on snow accumulation and melt in the headwaters of the Colorado River

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ABSTRACT

The mountain pine beetle is killing many trees in Colorado's high-elevation forests. The thinned canopies found in dead tree stands should intercept less snow and transmit more radiation than canopies in living forests, altering snow accumulation and melt processes. We compare snow, forest, and meteorological properties beneath living and pine beetle-killed tree stands. Eight pairs of living and dead tree stands were monitored over two years along the headwaters of the Colorado River. During year one, all eight dead stands were in the red phase of tree death — the trees still retained needles. Snow accumulation was the same under living and red phase stands, but snow melt was more rapid in red phase stands. As a result, the snowpack was depleted one week earlier in the red phase stands. Canopy shortwave transmission was not higher in red phase stands. We hypothesize that the faster melt and earlier depletion in red phase stands was caused by accelerated needle loss which lowers the albedo of the snow surface. By year two, many of the dead trees had progressed to the needle-less grey phase of tree death. Snow accumulation in grey phase stands was 15% higher than in paired living stands. Snow in grey phase stands melted more rapidly than in living stands, likely as a result of increased canopy shortwave transmission. We combine our results with those from previous studies to develop a conceptual model that describes how beetle infestation affects snow accumulation and melt in the different stages of mortality. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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