By Rachel Sargent
For many of us, winter in the Northeast means cold temperatures and piles of snow, drifting through forests and across fields. It’s hard to imagine that winter here could be different, but the prospect of climate change has scientists asking just what our winters might look like in the future – and how those changes might influence forest ecology.
At the U.S. Forest Service’s Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, scientists are thinking about the year 2100. How much warming will occur isn’t certain, but some projections suggest that average air temperatures in our region may increase 5.5 to 9 degrees over the course of this century. The effects are likely to be complex and are difficult to predict, with benefits and costs for different organisms. Some tree species, for example, may benefit from longer and warmer growing seasons, but they may also sustain root damage from more frequent soil freezing.
It may seem counterintuitive that soils would freeze more often during warm winters. The reason is a projected lack of snow. The blanket of snow that usually accumulates during winter insulates the soil below, preventing it from experiencing the full, sub-freezing temperatures of the air. When warmer temperatures leave a thinner blanket of snow, or none at all, the soil is more likely to freeze when cold snaps strike.