Wildfires Quietly Threaten a Crucial Water Source in the West

Snow is melting earlier in fire-ravaged areas, with potentially disastrous consequences.

A man watches as the NCAR Fire burns on March 26, 2022 in Boulder, Colorado.
A man watches as the NCAR Fire burns on March 26, 2022 in Boulder, Colorado. (Michael Ciaglo / Getty)

This article was originally published in High Country News.

The ground beneath the researcher Stephanie Kampf’s boots was black and burned to a sooty crisp in June 2021 as she walked across the burn scar left by the Cameron Peak Fire of 2020. A summer after the fire engulfed more than 200,000 acres in flames, there was no snow to be found in its footprint—despite the fact that it was almost 10,000 feet above sea level, where snow often persists in Colorado. However, in a nearby stand of unburned trees, Kampf noted that some “nice snow” did appear. “It was really striking,” she says. “It was so mind-blowing to me.”

According to research published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, wildfire is increasingly altering the snowpack in the western United States. Kampf, the study’s lead author and a professor of watershed science at Colorado State University, says that the Cameron Peak Fire—Colorado’s largest fire to date—inspired her research, because it started so close to the Continental Divide, a mountain range that divides the country’s principal drainage systems. That surprised Kampf. “We started wondering, is this something that’s happening elsewhere in the West?” she says.

Kampf and her team set out to determine whether more wildfires are burning at high elevations. The answer is unequivocally yes. And the consequences are dramatic: Snow in wildfire-burned areas is completely melting 18 to 24 days earlier than average. Climate change is already fueling an increase in the length, frequency, and severity of the wildfire season. And the snowpack is crucial to the health of western people and ecosystems: It contributes 20 percent to 90 percent of surface water used for agriculture, energy production, aquatic-species habitat, and more, according to Erin Whorton, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Idaho Snow Survey.

The researchers focused in part on places where snow doesn’t completely melt until or after May, called late-melt snow zones. These areas tend to stay cold long into spring and then warm relatively quickly—often creating big snowmelt pulses in stream flow. The ground cannot absorb all that snow when it melts simultaneously, and as a result, the water ends up in streams for uses downstream.

The authors found that from 1984 to 2020, 70 percent of late-melt snow zones saw a significant increase in wildfire activity. “What this study shows nicely is that fires are moving into places that we would think of as being more resistant because they’re cooler and wetter,” says Paul Brooks, a professor who studies mountain hydrology at the University of Utah. Brooks was not involved in the study but reviewed the manuscript. In zones that hold snow the longest in the Southern Rockies, more area burned in 2020 than in the past 36 years combined. “It’s a shocking difference,” Kampf says. “Seeing that in many different mountain ranges, the trend towards larger fires in snowy areas is really the most important finding.”

Wildfires can affect snow in numerous ways. Trees usually intercept some snow, but when they lose foliage or die, more snow initially reaches the ground. Sometimes, this leads to deeper snow. But then other competing factors take hold. A more exposed snowpack absorbs more solar radiation. Soot and other burned materials fall on the snow, reducing its ability to reflect sunlight and also encouraging a faster melt. Open areas are also more vulnerable to being scoured by wind. “It’s a balancing act, which one of those wins to create the snow conditions you see at the end of the season,” Kampf says.

Low-latitude, south-facing slopes and sunny regions are particularly vulnerable to wildfire’s effect on snowpack, as they receive more sunlight and solar energy. So are areas that see severe fires. Regional variability exists: For example, cloudy areas in the Pacific Northwest will likely see different effects on snowpack than areas that see more sun.

The study also found that snow in burned areas contains less water. “Peak snow-water equivalent, where the snowpack gets to at the end of the season, is pretty important,” Kampf says. “A lot of places, it’s going to be really correlated with how much streamflow there is.”

A shorter snowy season, which essentially means a longer summer, can have a cascading effect. “It’s like turning off a drip-irrigation system a month early,” Brooks says. Plants might be able to start growing sooner, but they might also run out of water as the summer progresses or be prone to early season frosts. That can hamper postfire forest recovery.

The researchers’ findings may affect how water is managed in the future. In areas already experiencing drought due to climate change, fire can further exacerbate water shortages. If snow doesn’t come in major pulses from late melt, and if parched ground sucks up moisture, less water is likely to make it into streams, rivers, and, eventually, reservoirs. Snowpack surveyors are watching with concern. “Forest fires are having a huge, huge impact on how snowmelt is occurring,” Wharton says.

Downstream-water managers might need to prepare for an earlier melt-off that will contribute to reservoirs much earlier than needed. “The timing is a really, really big deal,” Brooks says. “The surprising nature of less snow … should get folks thinking.”