Abstract

Wildfires in the snow zone affect ablation by removing forest canopy, which enhances surface solar irradiance, and depositing light absorbing particles [LAPs, such as black carbon (BC)] on the snowpack, reducing snow albedo. How variations in BC deposition affects post-wildfire snowmelt timing is poorly known and highly relevant to water resources. We present a field-based analysis of BC variability across five sites of varying burn age and burn severity in the Cascade Range, Washington State, United States. Single particle soot photometer (SP2) analyses of BC snow concentrations were used to assess the impact of BC on snow albedo, and radiative transfer modeling was used to estimate the radiative effect of BC on snowmelt. Results were compared to Snowpack Telemetry (SNOTEL) data from one site that burned in 2012 and another in a proximal unburned forest. We show that post-wildfire forests provide a significant source of BC to the snowpack, and this effect increases by an order of magnitude in regions of high versus low burn severity, and decreased by two orders of magnitude over a decade. There is a shift in the timing of snowmelt, with snow disappearance occurring on average 19 ± 9 days earlier post-wildfire (2013–19) relative to pre-wildfire (1983–2012). This study improves understanding of the connection between wildfire activity and snowmelt, which is of high relevance as climate change models project further decreases in snowpack and increases in wildfire activity in the Washington Cascades.

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