Natural Resources Research Assesses Impact of Changing Snowpack on Climate in Western U.S.

Friday, August 28 2009

MOSCOW, Idaho – Water researchers across the state are collaboratively embarking on a three-year hydrologic study that will contribute to a greater understanding of the altered distribution of winter snowpack, one of the greatest climatic impacts on the semi-arid mountains of the western U.S.

University of Idaho, Boise State University and U.S.D.A. Agricultural Research Service project members recently received $500,000 from the National Science Foundation to support their effort.

The project, entitled "Collaborative Research: A WATERS Testbed to Investigate the Impacts of Changing Snow Conditions on Hydrologic Processes in the Western United States," is a collaborative effort directed by Danny Marks, research hydrologist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service; Jim McNamara, professor of watershed hydrology at Boise State University; and Timothy Link, associate professor of forest resources in the University of Idaho's College of Natural Resources.

According to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the western U.S. will experience decreased snowpack, shifts in timing and volume of runoff, and increased evapotranspiration, all factors leading to the reduction of precious water resources in the summer season when they are needed the most. Recent research in southern Idaho strongly indicates that these changes have occurred in the past 50 years.

"Our overall goal is to advance the scientific understanding of relationships between snow and soil moisture processes in complex terrain, a key step toward understanding the hydrologic impacts of climate change in the western U.S.," said Link.

Link is collaborating with a team of other hydrologists and Waters of the West scientists who propose that future impacts of climate-induced changes in snowpack distribution on soil moisture dynamics can be predicted by evaluating current differences across elevation gradients. Specifically, they will examine the relationships among snow distribution, landscape properties and soil moisture.

"One of the problems in natural science is that funding programs typically are not long enough to establish trends," said McNamara. "The NSF is interested in building permanent environmental laboratories around the country to observe natural processes, and our project is a test bed. We’ll be looking at network ideas, how to build one of these natural labs, what measurements to take and what science questions we can ask with them

"One of the things we hope it will do is improve hydrologic predictive models, which will give us a better understanding of where water is and how it gets there in the semi-arid Intermountain West," McNamara said.

"This project is a model for building on statewide strengths represented by universities, government agencies and world-class outdoor laboratories," Link added.

The study will take place on the Reynolds Creek and the Dry Creek experimental watersheds that currently comprise the Middle Snake Hydrologic Observatory. The MSHO is part of a nationwide network of experimental sites that make up the Water and Environmental Research Systems Network. The network strives to improve the nation’s capability to better predict and manage water.

The similarities and contrasts between the two watersheds create opportunities to understand how combinations of hydrological conditions and different soil properties interact to control water flow and temperature dynamics, team members say.

Another of the team’s objectives is to demonstrate how hydrologic observatories can be used to facilitate community science efforts to address critical water resource problems that are common to many semi-arid and arid regions across the globe.

The idea for the study grew from the team’s long-term interest in the topic and vision to build effective university-government partnership. The project is supported by the ARS research facilities and is a direct result of the Idaho NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive (EPSCoR) program commitment in 2004 to establish long-term water observatories to develop better understanding of the waters in Idaho and the nation. The current NSF EPSCoR project, "Water Resources in a Changing Climate," expands on this initiative.
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About the University of Idaho
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Media Contact: Sue McMurray, College of Natural Resources Communications, (208) 885-6673,; or Erin Ryan, Boise State University Communications, (208) 426-4910,  

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit