FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- You may have heard people talk about the importance of heavy snow pack to the forest health of Arizona, but do you know why?

Snowmelt is a vital source of soil moisture in northern Arizona. However, in overly dense forests where tree canopies merge, up to 60 percent of the snow never reaches the ground.

A new grant from The Nature Conservancy is funding a two-year interdisciplinary project in which a team of NAU scientists will study the effects of mechanical thinning on forest patches and the resulting amount of snowmelt that reaches the soil.

This research will determine the ideal mechanical thinning pattern to help land managers plan for, and monitor, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). It's a collaborative effort to restore forest ecosystems of four national forests—Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto—along the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona.

Temuulen “Teki” Sankey, assistant professor in NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems (SICCS), is leading the project. She's working with professor Abe Springer of NAU’s School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability and doctoral student Adam Belmonte.

“We want to determine the ideal tree density and forest patch size for the optimal amount of snow to reach the ground,” Sankey said. “We hypothesize that the size and orientation of a forest patch correlates directly to how fast the snow melts, evaporates, and how much of the melted snow actually adds moisture to the soil.”