Thursday, August 09, 2007

Climate Change, Fire, and Water in the American West

Kudos to my friend and colleague, U.S. Forest Service biologist, Hugh Safford, for coverage of his research on this subject in today's San Francisco Chronicle:

Forest fires in the Sierra Nevada are bigger, hotter, more numerous and they are killing more trees than ever as a result of human fire suppression and climate change, according to data from a fire severity monitoring study released Wednesday.

The information, culled from 21 years of monitoring in the Sierra by U.S. Forest Service personnel, shows that recent fires have left gaping scars in the forest.

Interestingly, as fires burn through more acres of forest, the result is to reduce shading of the forest floor -- and as a result, to reduce the depth and longevity of the snowpack.

The logical feedback would then be that as fire frequency and severity increase, tree cover and shade at ground level will decrease, slowing the growth of the snowpack throughout the winter, and accelerating its melt in the spring.

The same impact can be applied to the shade-reducing impacts of clear-cut logging on the snow pack, points out my friend and colleague, UC Davis conservation biologist, Jim Thorne. Perhaps this type of land management is not such a good idea in a warming world if we are to protect the snowpack and the precious water that it provides.

Does that mean that management of forests to protect their environmental service of providing water will result in the phasing out of clear-cut logging? If there is any political force in the American West that can stand tall against that of boardfeet of timber, it is acrefeet of water.

Stay tuned...

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