UC Connect: Studying Sierra snowpack

September 12, 2012 

From the white, sugary sands of Hawaii to the white, powdery slopes of the Sierra Nevada, natural sciences professor Stephen Hart has his eye on climate change.

For the past two years, the professor, who's affiliated with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, has worked with student researchers at remote sites in the mountains. They manipulate the snowpack to see the effects of early snowmelt on the forest, from how it affects the nutrients in the soil and plant growth to how greenhouse gases are emitted from the soil.

It's all with the goal of designing better predictive tools, and they've gotten some surprising results.

Hart thought they'd find that the earlier the snow melted, the more carbon dioxide would be released by soil microorganisms, contributing to more global warming. But it appears to be just the opposite.

"The emissions are actually slowed down," Hart said.

The researchers also found that earlier snowmelt has a longer-lasting effect than they had theorized -- drier soil persisted for much of the summer growing season, impacting the forest plants' growing season.

In Hawaii, Hart studies the effects of climate change on the soils in the rain forests, and while he doesn't have to worry about soil drying out there, he said studying the contrast between the different ecosystems contributes to global knowledge about climate change.

"We need to understand how warmer temperatures are affecting the ecosystems we live in -- the crops, water availability, birds and animals -- everything," Hart said.

To manipulate the snowmelt, Hart and the other researchers, including his postdoctoral student Joey Blankinship, have tried different methods. It took a few tries to come up with a method that warms the snow at rates that simulate those caused by global warming in the Sierra -- allowing them to evaluate the effects on the forests of an earlier snowmelt.

Yosemite program grows

The UC Merced Yosemite Leadership Program's first full-time leader plans to build on the program's momentum and expand its visibility.

Jacob Croasdale was recently selected to oversee the 3-year-old program. A $65,000 grant from the Mitsubishi Corp. Foundation for the Americas is funding the position through June 2013.

"This is a critical moment for the program," said Charles Nies, assistant vice chancellor for Student Affairs. "The Mitsubishi grant has allowed us to hire a dedicated person to shepherd the program, to help it take on more students and expand its profile."

The Yosemite Leadership Program is a unique partnership between UC Merced and Yosemite National Park. Each year, 22 undergraduates join the program and learn about parks, environmental issues, themselves -- and how to pass their enthusiasm on to others.

Croasdale graduated from UC Merced with a degree in biological sciences. He was a founder and a participant in the program, spending two years in it.

"We started out super grass-roots, excitedly, with a very primitive structure and curriculum," Croasdale said. "Now, over the past year, we've seen an incredible maturation of the program."

Croasdale wants to build that momentum and expand the program's influence in local schools and communities.

"With this gift, UC Merced will provide guidance and professional support for its YLP students," Croasdale said. "This program is going to charge forward, thanks to the confidence and generous support given by Mitsubishi."

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced.edu.

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