Monday, 13 May 2013

Decline in Snow Cover Spells Trouble for Many Plants, Animals

May 7, 2013 — For plants and animals forced to tough out harsh winter weather, the coverlet of snow that blankets the north country is a refuge, a stable beneath-the-snow habitat that gives essential respite from biting winds and subzero temperatures. 

But in a warming world, winter and spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere is in decline, putting at risk many plants and animals that depend on the space beneath the snow to survive the blustery chill of winter. 

In a report published May 2 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison describes the gradual decay of the Northern Hemisphere's "subnivium," the term scientists use to describe the seasonal microenvironment beneath the snow, a habitat where life from microbes to bears take full advantage of warmer temperatures, near constant humidity and the absence of wind. 

"Underneath that homogenous blanket of snow is an incredibly stable refuge where the vast majority of organisms persist through the winter," explains Jonathan Pauli, a UW-Madison professor of forest and wildlife ecology and a co-author of the new report. "The snow holds in heat radiating from the ground, plants photosynthesize, and it's a haven for insects, reptiles, amphibians and many other organisms." 

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