1Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA
2Department of Geography, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA
3Department of Biological Sciences, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA
4Department of Biology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA
*now at: Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA
**now at: Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA
Abstract. Accumulated snow in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, while limited, has great ecological significance to subnivian soil environments. Though sublimation dominates the ablation process in this region, measurable increases in soil moisture and insulation from temperature extremes provide more favorable conditions with respect to subnivian soil communities. While precipitation is not substantial, significant amounts of snow can accumulate, via wind transport, in topographic lees along the valley bottoms, forming thousands of discontinuous snow patches. These patches have the potential to act as significant sources of local meltwater, controlling biogeochemical cycling and the landscape distribution of microbial communities. Therefore, determining the spatial and temporal dynamics of snow at multiple scales is imperative to understanding the broader ecological role of snow in this region.
High-resolution satellite imagery acquired during the 2009–2010 and 2010–2011 austral summers was used to quantify the distribution of snow across Taylor and Wright valleys. Extracted snow-covered area from the imagery was used as the basis for assessing inter-annual variability and seasonal controls on accumulation and ablation of snow at multiple scales. In addition to landscape analyses, fifteen 1 km2 plots (3 in each of 5 study regions) were selected to assess the prevalence of snow cover at finer spatial scales, referred to herein as the snow-patch scale. Results confirm that snow patches tend to form in the same locations each year with some minor deviations observed. At the snow-patch scale, neighboring patches often exhibit considerable differences in aerial ablation rates, and particular snow patches do not reflect trends for snow-covered area observed at the landscape scale. These differences are presumably related to microtopographic influences acting on individual snow patches, such as wind sheltering and differences in snow depth due to the underlying topography. This highlights the importance of both the landscape and snow-patch scales in assessing the effects of snow cover on biogeochemical cycling and microbial communities.