Midway Point for Winter Snowpack
|New Mexico is currently near the halfway point for accumulating snowpack. This feature will illustrate how low our current snowpack is and how it could result in adverse issues down the road for the 2013 fire season.|
|State Highway 536, otherwise known as the Sandia Crest Road, is located a few miles east of Albuquerque New Mexico, and is shown in white on the map to the right. This road starts at an elevation of 7,000 feet and continues up to 10,600 feet near the crest of the Sandia Mountains. The distance from the start of the highway to the end of the road is only 5.5 miles as the crow flies. This road provides a wonderful example of how vegetation and meteorology changes with elevation. For several years, photographs have been taken at various elevations to document snowpack in the varying environments. Locations at which the photos were taken are marked by the open circles on the map.|
|At the east end of the road, around 7,000 feet, grass, shrubs, and smaller timber (typically piñon/juniper and ponderosa) dominate. By 8,000 feet, the road enters an area of heavier ponderosa pine timber, although locally drier or more exposed aspects can remain in a shrub or grass component. As the climb continues, the ponderosa pines give way to a mixed conifer forest of spruce and Douglas fir. Douglas fir needles are shorter than those of the ponderosa pine. Green-up along this highway during the spring and summer months occurs at different times, while snowfall and rainfall can be quite variable from lower to higher elevations. Photos for this feature were taken by Brent Wachter, and are used to illustrate the current snowpack as well as differences in snowpack and fuels from year to year at different elevations along this highway.|
|These two photos compare conditions along the Sandia Crest Road at 7,000 feet in 2012 (left) and 2013 (right). While more snow is visually evident in 2013, note that the grass is much more suspended, or upright, indicating that the snowpack has been lighter thus far this year.|
|By 8,000 ft, there is less snow cover in 2013 than in 2012. Similar to the photos for 7,000 ft, the grass is much more vertically suspended in 2013, once again indicating a lighter snowpack to this point.|
|These three photos were taken at the end of the Sandia Crest Road, at 10,400 ft on 2011 (left), 2012 (above left) and 2013 (above right). Snow depth is much less in 2013 than in the previous two years, as much more of the sign post is visible.|
|Current snowpack across New Mexico mimics what is observed in the Sandia mountains. Every major river basin across the state but one has lower snow water equivalent values when compared to last year. Snow water equivalent is important because it indicates how much water is "locked up" within the snowpack and, therefore, it impacts runoff and irrigation needs. The Rio Chama basin, the only basin slightly improved compared to last year, is still below normal. All New Mexico basins are below normal this year while six out of 10 were above normal on January 31, 2012. December 2011 was an especially active period with a mixture of "wetter/warmer" and "drier/cooler" systems. January 2012 turned out drier. The storm track was fairly active this past December (2012) but was followed by a drier and cooler January. Only a couple systems were considered "wet" and most of the storms impacted smaller portions of the state.|
|These graphics depict the Snow Water Equivalent Percent of Normal on January 31, 2012 (left) and January 31, 2013.
Graphics were obtained from the NRCS website.
|So what does that all mean? The snowpack isn't looking very good and the outlook currently favors an increased chance of drier and warmer conditions during the next few months, as shown in the outlooks below. Such a scenario would lead to an increased chance for the snowpack to melt and sublimate earlier than normal, exposing ground fuels such as leaf litter and needlecast to the sun's heat energy. This in turn dries the ground fuels out earlier than normal and lengthens the fire season within the timber areas. With less snow, grass is less likely to be matted down which allows for faster moving wildfires. This is especially important to residents living in the forest/grassland transition zones. One saving grace, the fine fuel or grass loading is currently below normal due to the persistent drought conditions observed the last two years.|
|What would it take to get more snow? Dream El Niño! Our last above average winter snowpack occurred during the 2009/10 winter season and that occurred during our last El Niño winter.|