Winter is getting less reliable.
In Michigan, for example, many families could’ve gone sledding a few months ago on Halloween but not on Christmas when temperatures reached 60 degrees in some areas.
Changing winters also can have troubling consequences for the health and function of nature’s ecosystems. Increasingly common weather events like rain-on-snow events are reducing snowpack and washing away nutrients from soils to our streams and lakes.
This winter, researchers at the University of Michigan Biological Station in northern Michigan are strengthening their snow science with new technology to track the snowpack at an hourly rate and get a deeper understanding of the complexities of global environmental change.
The lab of Aimée Classen, director of the Biological Station and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, installed a high-frequency snow-depth sensor at the 10,000-acre research and teaching campus along Douglas Lake at the end of November.
“Winters are changing, and those changes will impact forest productivity and aquatic water quality,” Classen said. “We are working on a high-tech scale-up of our ongoing, on-the-ground, manual monitoring so we can explore how winters are changing across Michigan and the Midwest.”
Snow discreetly helps regulate the flow of nutrients throughout the ecosystem by providing an insulating layer—a warm blanket—so the soil and root systems underneath do not freeze very deeply, allowing microorganisms to do their important winter chores that later feed plants in the spring and summer.
For 44 years, scientists at the field station about 20 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge have been manually measuring snow depth and accumulation at 8 a.m. every day as part of long-term daily precipitation data.