Effects of snow and climate on soil temperature and frost development in forested peatlands in minnesota, USA

Hannah C. Friesen, Robert A. Slesak, Diana L. Karwan, Randall K. Kolka

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Black spruce (Picea mariana) peatlands play important ecologic and economic roles in the temperate-boreal region of North America, providing a valuable timber resource while also performing important ecosystem functions. Climate models project decreases in the amount of snowfall received throughout the temperate-boreal region by 2100, as average wintertime temperatures increase. We used a paired-plot experimental design to assess the effect of snow removal on soil temperature and frost development at six forested peatland sites in northern Minnesota, USA, during the three winters from 2017 to 2020. Treatments consisted of 1) removal of snow throughout the winter, or 2) ambient snow cover conditions. During the three years of the study, there was a significant effect of snow removal by mid-winter that continued into late winter and spring, where removal of snow increased soil frost depth compared to plots with ambient snow cover treatment. Soil temperatures in the removal plots were highly responsive to air temperature fluctuations to depths of 20 cm or more, whereas the ambient snow cover soils exhibited little fluctuation and maintained temperatures near or above 0° C for much of the winter season. We found that each cumulative freezing degree day resulted in an average of 0.36 cm of soil frost development in snow removal plots, as compared to 0.07 cm depth in the ambient treatment plots. Soils were significantly colder through much of the summer growing season in the removal treatment compared to the ambient treatment, with detectable soil frost in the soil profile as late as mid- to late-June. These results indicate that predicted changes in wintertime precipitation may result in increased development of soil frost in forested peatland systems, although some of this effect may be offset by predicted concurrent increases in air temperature. We did not measure indicators of biological activity, but the large and prolonged reduction in soil temperature with snow removal is likely to depress biological activity throughout the growing season and the many ecosystem functions it influences. Because of the role that soil temperature and frost play on the hydrologic and ecological processes of peatlands, as well as the crucial role of soil frost in peatland forest management, findings of this study provide important insight into the potential effects of altered winter conditions on these expansive and ecologically important ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number115015
StatePublished - Jul 1 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for this work was provided by the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station (grant number MN-42-080). We gratefully acknowledge assistance with plot set-up and snow removal from Beckie Prange, Kyle Gill, Rachael Olesiak, Lane Johnson, Anne Gapinski, Deacon Kyllander, Katy Johnson, Sara Kelso, Lucy Rose, Alan Toczydlowski, Odin Holmes, and Kevin and Terri Friesen.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier B.V.


  • Black spruce
  • Climate change
  • Forest harvest
  • Organic soils
  • Reduced snowpack
  • Summer frost
  • Winter harvest


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