Articles | Volume 8, issue 6
The Cryosphere, 8, 2381–2394, 2014
The Cryosphere, 8, 2381–2394, 2014

Research article 20 Dec 2014

Research article | 20 Dec 2014

Elevation dependency of mountain snow depth

T. Grünewald1,2, Y. Bühler1, and M. Lehning1,2 T. Grünewald et al.
  • 1WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, 7260 Davos, Switzerland
  • 2Cryos, School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

Abstract. Elevation strongly affects quantity and distribution patterns of precipitation and snow. Positive elevation gradients were identified by many studies, usually based on data from sparse precipitation stations or snow depth measurements. We present a systematic evaluation of the elevation–snow depth relationship. We analyse areal snow depth data obtained by remote sensing for seven mountain sites near to the time of the maximum seasonal snow accumulation. Snow depths were averaged to 100 m elevation bands and then related to their respective elevation level. The assessment was performed at three scales: (i) the complete data sets (10 km scale), (ii) sub-catchments (km scale) and (iii) slope transects (100 m scale). We show that most elevation–snow depth curves at all scales are characterised through a single shape. Mean snow depths increase with elevation up to a certain level where they have a distinct peak followed by a decrease at the highest elevations. We explain this typical shape with a generally positive elevation gradient of snow fall that is modified by the interaction of snow cover and topography. These processes are preferential deposition of precipitation and redistribution of snow by wind, sloughing and avalanching. Furthermore, we show that the elevation level of the peak of mean snow depth correlates with the dominant elevation level of rocks (if present).

Short summary
Elevation dependencies of snow depth are analysed based on snow depth maps obtained from airborne remote sensing. Elevation gradients are characterised by a specific shape: an increase of snow depth with elevation is followed by a distinct peak at a certain level and a decrease in the highest elevations. We attribute this shape to an increase of precipitation with altitude, which is modified by topographical-induced redistribution processes of the snow on the ground (wind, gravitation).