The prediction of uneven snowpack response to forest thinning informs forest restoration in the central Sierra Nevada

Gabriel Lewis, Adrian Harpold, Sebastian A. Krogh, Patrick Broxton, Patricia N. Manley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Sierra Nevada has experienced unprecedented wildfires and reduced snowmelt runoff in recent decades, due partially to anthropogenic climate change and over a century of fire suppression. To address these challenges, public land agencies are planning forest restoration treatments, which have the potential to both increase water availability and reduce the likelihood of uncontrollable wildfires. However, the impact of forest restoration on snowpack is site specific and not well understood across gradients of climate and topography. To improve our understanding of how forest restoration might impact snowpack across diverse conditions in the central Sierra Nevada, we run the high-resolution (1 m) energy and mass balance Snow Physics and Lidar Mapping (SnowPALM) model across five 23–75 km2 subdomains in the region where forest thinning is planned or recently completed. We conduct two virtual thinning experiments by removing all trees shorter than 10 or 20 m tall and rerunning SnowPALM to calculate the change in meltwater input. Our results indicate heterogeneous responses to thinning due to differences in climate and wind across our five central Sierra Nevada subdomains. We also predict the largest increases in snow retention when thinning forests with tall (7–20 m) and dense (40–70% canopy cover) trees, highlighting the importance of pre-thinning vegetation structure. We develop a decision support tool using a random forests model to determine which regions would most benefit from thinning. In many locations, we expect major forest restoration to increase snow accumulation, while other areas with short and sparse canopies, as well as sunny and windy climates, are more likely to see decreased snowpack following thinning. Our decision support tool provides stand-scale (30 m) information to land managers across the central Sierra Nevada region to best take advantage of climate and existing forest structure to obtain the greatest snowpack benefits from forest restoration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2580
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 2023


  • Sierra Nevada
  • computer modelling
  • forest management
  • water resources

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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