Climate change is causing larger wildfires and more extreme precipitation events throughout the world. As these ecological disturbances increasingly coincide, they are altering lateral fluxes of sediment, organic matter, and nutrients. Increased lateral flux of nutrients could exacerbate eutrophication and associated harmful algal blooms, and increased sediment and organic matter flux could degrade the water supply. Here, we report the immediate stream chemistry response of watersheds in central Utah (USA) that were affected by a megafire followed by an extreme precipitation event in 2018. The wildfires burned throughout the summer of 2018 until the remnants of Hurricane Rosa released torrential rain on the still smoldering, 610-km2 burn scar. To assess how these multiple stressors affected lateral material fluxes, we collected daily to hourly water samples at 10 stream locations starting immediately before the storm event until three weeks after it finished. We quantified suspended sediment, solute and nutrient concentrations, water isotopes, and the concentration, optical properties, and reactivity of dissolved organic matter. For all land-use types, the wildfire caused substantial increases in sediment concentration and flux, increasing total suspended sediment by over 20-fold, attributable to the loss of stabilizing vegetation and increased runoff. Unexpectedly, dissolved organic carbon (DOC) was 2.1-fold higher in burned watersheds, despite the decrease in plant and soil organic matter, and this DOC was 1.3-fold more biodegradable and 2.0-fold more photodegradable than in unburned watersheds based on 28-day light and dark incubations. However, nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations were higher in watersheds with high anthropogenic influences, regardless of burn status. Likewise, direct human land use had a greater effect than wildfire on runoff response, with rapid storm water signals in urban and agricultural areas and a slow arrival of storm water in unburned areas without direct human influence. These findings indicate how megafires and intense rainfall fundamentally increase short-term sediment flux and alter organic matter concentration and characteristics, confirming previous research. These fluxes of degradable dissolved and particulate organic matter could exert short-term pressure on ecosystems already fragmented by human infrastructure. However, in contrast with previous research, which overwhelming focuses on burned-unburned comparisons in pristine watersheds, we found that the presence of urban and agricultural activity exerted a much greater influence on nutrient status than the wildfire. This novel finding suggests that reducing nutrient fluxes from urban and agricultural areas could make ecosystems more resilient to megafire and extreme precipitation events. Together with reducing anthropogenic climate change to reduce the frequency and extent of large wildfires, improving nutrient management should be a priority in semi-arid regions such as Utah.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Crandall, Trevor William, "Wildfire in the West: How Megafires and Storm Events Affect Stream Chemistry and Nutrient Dynamics in Semi-Arid Watersheds" (2020). Theses and Dissertations. 8886.
megafire, wildfire, water chemistry, sediment, water isotopes, photodegradability, photomineralization, biodegradability, pyrogenic, dissolved organic matter, nutrient dynamics