Northern forest winters have lost cold, snowy conditions that are important for ecosystems and human communities

Ecological Applications
By: , and 



Winter is an understudied but key period for the socio-ecological systems of northeastern North American forests. A growing awareness of the importance of the winter season to forest ecosystems and surrounding communities has inspired several decades of research, both across the northern forest and at other mid- and high-latitude ecosystems around the globe. Despite these efforts, we lack a synthetic understanding of how winter climate change may impact hydrological and biogeochemical processes and the social and economic activities they support. Here we take advantage of 100 years of meteorological observations across the northern forest region of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada to develop a suite of indicators that enable a cross-cutting understanding of 1) how winter temperatures and snow cover have been changing and 2) how these shifts may impact both ecosystems and surrounding human communities. We show that cold and snow-covered conditions have generally decreased over the past 100 years. These trends suggest positive outcomes for tree health as related to reduced fine root mortality and nutrient loss associated with winter frost but negative outcomes as related to the northward advancement and proliferation of forest insect pests. In addition to effects on vegetation, reductions in cold temperatures and snow cover are likely to have negative impacts on the ecology of the northern forest through impacts on water, soils, and wildlife. The overall loss of coldness and snow cover may also have negative consequences for logging and forest products, vector-borne diseases and human health, recreation and tourism, and cultural practices, which together represent important social and economic dimensions for the northern forest region. These findings advance our understanding of how our changing winters may transform the socio- ecological system of a region that has been defined by the contrasting rhythm of the seasons. Our research also identifies a trajectory of change that informs our expectations for the future as the climate continues to warm.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Northern forest winters have lost cold, snowy conditions that are important for ecosystems and human communities
Series title Ecological Applications
DOI 10.1002/eap.1974
Volume 29
Issue 7
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) New England Water Science Center
Description e01974, 24 p.
Country United States, Canada