Vegetation structure controls on snow and soil moisture in restored ponderosa pine forests

Frances C. O'Donnell, Jonathon Donager, Temuulen Sankey, Sharon Masek Lopez, Abraham E. Springer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Thinning of semi-arid forests to reduce wildfire risk is believed to improve forest health by increasing soil moisture. Increased snowpack, reduced transpiration and reduced rainfall interception are frequently cited mechanisms by which reduced canopy density may increase soil moisture. However, the relative importance of these factors has not been rigorously evaluated in field studies. We measured snow depth, snow water equivalent (SWE) and the spatial and temporal variation in soil moisture at four experimental paired treatment-control thinning sites in high elevation ponderosa pine forest northern Arizona, USA. We compared snow and soil moisture measurements with forest structure metrics derived from aerial imagery and 3-dimensional lidar data to determine the relationship between vegetation structure, snow and soil moisture throughout the annual hydrologic cycle. Soil moisture was consistently and significantly higher in thinned forest plots, even though the treatments were performed 8–11 years before this study. However, we did not find evidence that SWE was higher in thinned forests across a range of snow conditions. Regression tree analysis of soil moisture and vegetation structure data provided some evidence that localized differences in transpiration and interception of precipitation influence the spatial pattern of soil moisture at points in the annual hydrologic cycle when the system is becoming increasingly water limited. However, vegetation structure explained a relatively low amount of the spatial variance (R2 < 0.23) in soil moisture. Continuous measurements of soil moisture in depth profiles showed stronger attenuation of soil moisture peaks in thinned sites, suggesting differences in infiltration dynamics may explain the difference in soil moisture between treatments as opposed to overlying vegetation alone. Our results show limited support for commonly cited relationships between vegetation structure, snow and soil moisture and indicate that future research is needed to understand how reduction in tree density alters soil hydraulic properties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere14432
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • forest restoration
  • interception
  • lidar
  • regression tree
  • semi-arid forest
  • snow water equivalent

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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