Massive amounts of freshwater rests atop the world's mountains in the form of ice, snow, permafrost, and glaciers. Many areas of the world rely upon the melting of snow and ice to recharge their rivers and reservoirs. But not all of that ice and snow actually melts. Some percentage of a snowpack will phase change directly into water vapor (sublimation).

How much potential mountain run off is lost to sublimation anually? How can we measure this loss?

What sort of insight do researchers have on the impacts of sublimation on the local microclimate?


1 Answer 1


I looked into this and found Sublimation from a seasonal snowpack at a continental, mid-latitude apline site by Eran Hood, Mark Williams, and Don Cline go into great detail on this subject.

  • Martinelli (1960) reports that sublimation is responsible for only 1-2% of summer snowpack ablation in snowfields between 3500-3800 m in the Rocky Mountains.
  • (West and Knoerr, 1959) Measurements from snow evaporation pans at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory in California measured annual sublimation at only 25-35 mm or 2-3% of total ablation over the snow season
  • Beaty (1975) reported that sublimation was responsible for 80% of the ablation of fresh snow and 60% of the ablation of older snow during springtime conditions in the White Mountains of California.
  • Kattelmann and Elder (1991) estimated sublimation from snow to be 18% of total precipitation over two water years based on data collected in the Emerald Lake Basin in the Sierra Nevada.
  • Marks and Dozier snowpack estimated lost to sublimation in the Sierra Nevada to be 20%.
  • Water losses to sublimation were equal to 13% of annual precipitation at Niwot Ridge.
  • Hood, Willians & Cline report 15% of maximum snow accumulation at the study site was lost due to sublimation.
  • Another article notes the importance of vegetation on sublimation: ranging from 13% for a mixed spruce–aspen, 31% for the mature pine and 40% for a mature spruce stand. The results indicate that sublimation can be a significant abstraction of water from mature evergreen stands in northern forests.

The results seem somewhat inconclusive. This topic needs more comprehensive and robust research.


  • 15-20% is the range given by the most recent studies in the intermountain USA.

  • Solar radiation was the most closely correlated with trends in sublimation and condensation.

  • Vegetation impacts sublimation rates.

  • $\begingroup$ I would love someone with more expertise to weigh in on this subject!! $\endgroup$
    – DrewP84
    Apr 17, 2014 at 1:27

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