Articles | Volume 18, issue 10
Research article
30 Oct 2014
Research article |  | 30 Oct 2014

LiDAR measurement of seasonal snow accumulation along an elevation gradient in the southern Sierra Nevada, California

P. B. Kirchner, R. C. Bales, N. P. Molotch, J. Flanagan, and Q. Guo

Abstract. We present results from snow-on and snow-off airborne-scanning LiDAR measurements over a 53 km2 area in the southern Sierra Nevada. We found that snow depth as a function of elevation increased approximately 15 cm per 100 m, until reaching an elevation of 3300 m, where depth sharply decreased at a rate of 48 cm per 100 m. Departures from the 15 cm per 100 m trend, based on 1 m elevation-band means of regression residuals, showed slightly less steep increases below 2050 m; steeper increases between 2050 and 3300 m; and less steep increases above 3300 m. Although the study area is partly forested, only measurements in open areas were used. Below approximately 2050 m elevation, ablation and rainfall are the primary causes of departure from the orographic trend. From 2050 to 3300 m, greater snow depths than predicted were found on the steeper terrain of the northwest and the less steep northeast-facing slopes, suggesting that ablation, aspect, slope and wind redistribution all play a role in local snow-depth variability. At elevations above 3300 m, orographic processes mask the effect of wind deposition when averaging over large areas. Also, terrain in this basin becomes less steep above 3300 m. This suggests a reduction in precipitation from upslope lifting and/or the exhaustion of precipitable water from ascending air masses. Our results suggest a cumulative precipitation lapse rate for the 2100–3300 m range of about 6 cm per 100 m elevation for the accumulation period of 3 December 2009 to 23 March 2010. This is a higher gradient than the widely used PRISM (Parameter-elevation Relationships on Independent Slopes Model) precipitation products, but similar to that from reconstruction of snowmelt amounts from satellite snow-cover data. Our findings provide a unique characterization of the consistent, steep average increase in precipitation with elevation in snow-dominated terrain, using high-resolution, highly accurate data and highlighs the importance of solar radiation, wind redistribution and mid-winter melt with regard to snow distribution.

Short summary
In this study we present results from LiDAR snow depth measurements made over 53 sq km and a 1600 m elevation gradient. We found a lapse rate of 15 cm accumulated snow depth and 6 cm SWE per 100 m in elevation until 3300 m, where depth sharply decreased. Residuals from this trend revealed the role of aspect and highlighted the importance of solar radiation and wind for snow distribution. Lastly, we compared LiDAR SWE estimations with four model estimates of SWE and total precipitation.