A 20-Year Ecotone Study of Pacific Northwest Mountain Forest Vulnerability to Changing Snow Conditions

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
Publication Number: 

Lookingbill, Todd R; DuPuy, Jack; Jacobs, Ellery; Gonzalez, Matteo; Kostadinov, Tihomir S. 2024. A 20-Year Ecotone Study of Pacific Northwest Mountain Forest Vulnerability to Changing Snow Conditions. Land. 13(4): 424. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/land13040424


(1) Background: Global climate change is expected to significantly alter growing conditions along mountain gradients. Landscape ecological patterns are likely to shift significantly as species attempt to adapt to these changes. We evaluated the extent to which spatial (elevation and canopy cover) and temporal (decadal trend and El Niño–Southern Oscillation/Pacific Decadal Oscillation) factors impact seasonal snowmelt and forest community dynamics in the Western Hemlock–True Fir ecotone region of the Oregon Western Cascades, USA. (2) Methods: Tsuga heterophylla and Abies amabilis seedling locations were mapped three times over 20 years (2002–2022) on five sample transects strategically placed to cross the ecotone. Additionally, daily ground temperature readings were collected over 10 years for the five transects using 123 data loggers to estimate below-canopy snow metrics. (3) Results: Based on validation using time-lapse cameras, the data loggers proved highly reliable for estimating snow cover. The method reported fewer days of snow cover as compared to meteorological station-based snow products for the region, emphasizing the importance of direct under-canopy field observations of snow. Snow season variability was most significantly impacted temporally by cyclical ENSO/PDO climate patterns and spatially by differences in canopy cover within the ecotone. The associated seedling analysis identified clear sorting of species by elevation within the ecotone but reflected a lack of a long-term trend, as species dominance in the seedling strata did not significantly shift along the elevation gradient over the 20-year study. (4) Conclusions: The data logger-based approach provided estimates of snow cover at ecologically significant locations and fine enough spatial resolutions to allow for the study of forest regeneration dynamics. The results highlight the importance of long-term, understory snow measurements and the influence of climatic oscillations in understanding the vulnerability of mountain areas to the changing climate.
Keywords: climate change; under-canopy seasonal snow cover; Pacific Decadal Oscillation; El Niño–Southern Oscillation; regeneration niche; western hemlock; Pacific silver fir