Colorado conifers given ‘Fitbits’ to measure snow cover

How much snow gets stuck in the branches of a tree? For hydrologists, it’s a question that matters because snow sitting on treetops is more likely to be melted by the sun or blown off by the wind, resulting in less snowpack on the ground and a smaller spring snowmelt.

Researchers at Oregon State University have come up with an ingenious solution for estimating how much snow a tree intercepts, using accelerometers to measure the amount the tree sways. Taking measurements in a coniferous forest in Colorado, scientists have found that trees with heavily snow-laden branches sway more slowly. Comparing these measurements with meteorological data and photographs, they were able to use the amount of sway to calibrate how much weight the tree had gained via snow capture. “One of my colleagues calls it a Fitbit for trees,” says hydrologist Mark Raleigh from Oregon State University, whose findings are published in Water Resources Research.

Previous studies have shown that as much as 60% of the snowfall can be intercepted by a conifer with a thick and luxurious crown. Their technique would need to be calibrated for different types of trees, but it could serve as a good way of monitoring snowstorms and improving hydrological forecasts.

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