Articles | Volume 10, issue 3
Research article
15 Jun 2016
Research article |  | 15 Jun 2016

Case study of spatial and temporal variability of snow cover, grain size, albedo and radiative forcing in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain snowpack derived from imaging spectroscopy

Felix C. Seidel, Karl Rittger, S. McKenzie Skiles, Noah P. Molotch, and Thomas H. Painter

Abstract. Quantifying the spatial distribution and temporal change in mountain snow cover, microphysical and optical properties is important to improve our understanding of the local energy balance and the related snowmelt and hydrological processes. In this paper, we analyze changes of snow cover, optical-equivalent snow grain size (radius), snow albedo and radiative forcing by light-absorbing impurities in snow and ice (LAISI) with respect to terrain elevation and aspect at multiple dates during the snowmelt period. These snow properties are derived from the NASA/JPL Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) data from 2009 in California's Sierra Nevada and from 2011 in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, USA.

Our results show a linearly decreasing snow cover during the ablation period in May and June in the Rocky Mountains and a snowfall-driven change in snow cover in the Sierra Nevada between February and May. At the same time, the snow grain size is increasing primarily at higher elevations and north-facing slopes from 200 microns to 800 microns on average. We find that intense snowmelt renders the mean grain size almost invariant with respect to elevation and aspect. Our results confirm the inverse relationship between snow albedo and grain size, as well as between snow albedo and radiative forcing by LAISI. At both study sites, the mean snow albedo value decreases from approximately 0.7 to 0.5 during the ablation period. The mean snow grain size increased from approximately 150 to 650 microns. The mean radiative forcing increases from 20 W m−2 up to 200 W m−2 during the ablation period. The variability of snow albedo and grain size decreases in general with the progression of the ablation period. The spatial variability of the snow albedo and grain size decreases through the melt season while the spatial variability of radiative forcing remains constant.

Short summary
Quantifying the snow albedo effect is an important step to predict water availability as well as changes in climate and sea level. We use imaging spectroscopy to determine optical properties of mountain snow. We find an inverse relationship between snow albedo and grain size as well as between elevation and grain size. Under strong melt conditions, however, we show that the optical-equivalent snow grain size increases slower than expected at lower elevations and we explain possible reasons.