Earlier snowmelt reduces atmospheric carbon uptake in midlatitude subalpine forests

Taylor S. Winchell, David M. Barnard, Russell K. Monson, Sean P. Burns, Noah P. Molotch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Previous work demonstrates conflicting evidence regarding the influence of snowmelt timing on forest net ecosystem exchange (NEE). Based on 15 years of eddy covariance measurements in Colorado, years with earlier snowmelt exhibited less net carbon uptake during the snow ablation period, which is a period of high potential for productivity. Earlier snowmelt aligned with colder periods of the seasonal air temperature cycle relative to later snowmelt. We found that the colder ablation-period air temperatures during these early snowmelt years lead to reduced rates of daily NEE. Hence, earlier snowmelt associated with climate warming, counterintuitively, leads to colder atmospheric temperatures during the snow ablation period and concomitantly reduced rates of net carbon uptake. Using a multilinear-regression (R2 = 0.79, P < 0.001) relating snow ablation period mean air temperature and peak snow water equivalent (SWE) to ablation-period NEE, we predict that earlier snowmelt and decreased SWE may cause a 45% reduction in midcentury ablation-period net carbon uptake.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8160-8168
Number of pages9
JournalGeophysical Research Letters
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 16 2016


  • carbon uptake
  • net ecosystem exchange
  • snow ablation period

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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