skip to main content


Title: Megafire affects stream sediment flux and dissolved organic matter reactivity, but land use dominates nutrient dynamics in semiarid watersheds
Climate change is causing larger wildfires and more extreme precipitation events in many regions. As these ecological disturbances increasingly coincide, they alter lateral fluxes of sediment, organic matter, and nutrients. Here, we report the stream chemistry response of watersheds in a semiarid region of Utah (USA) that were affected by a megafire followed by an extreme precipitation event in October 2018. We analyzed daily to hourly water samples at 10 stream locations from before the storm event until three weeks after its conclusion for suspended sediment, solute and nutrient concentrations, water isotopes, and dissolved organic matter concentration, optical properties, and reactivity. The megafire caused a ~2,000-fold increase in sediment flux and a ~6,000-fold increase in particulate carbon and nitrogen flux over the course of the storm. Unexpectedly, dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentration was 2.1-fold higher in burned watersheds, despite the decreased organic matter from the fire. DOC from burned watersheds was 1.3-fold more biodegradable and 2.0-fold more photodegradable than in unburned watersheds based on 28-day dark and light incubations. Regardless of burn status, nutrient concentrations were higher in watersheds with greater urban and agricultural land use. Likewise, human land use had a greater effect than megafire on apparent hydrological residence time, with rapid stormwater signals in urban and agricultural areas but a gradual stormwater pulse in areas without direct human influence. These findings highlight how megafires and intense rainfall increase short-term particulate flux and alter organic matter concentration and characteristics. However, in contrast with previous research, which has largely focused on burned-unburned comparisons in pristine watersheds, we found that direct human influence exerted a primary control on nutrient status. Reducing anthropogenic nutrient sources could therefore increase socioecological resilience of surface water networks to changing wildfire regimes.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
2011439
NSF-PAR ID:
10341204
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Editor(s):
Martínez-Yrízar, Angelina
Date Published:
Journal Name:
PLOS ONE
Volume:
16
Issue:
9
ISSN:
1932-6203
Page Range / eLocation ID:
e0257733
Format(s):
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Climate change is creating widespread ecosystem disturbance across the permafrost zone, including a rapid increase in the extent and severity of tundra wildfire. The expansion of this previously rare disturbance has unknown consequences for lateral nutrient flux from terrestrial to aquatic environments. Lateral loss of nutrients could reduce carbon uptake and slow recovery of already nutrient‐limited tundra ecosystems. To investigate the effects of tundra wildfire on lateral nutrient export, we analyzed water chemistry in and around the 10‐year‐old  Anaktuvuk River fire scar in northern Alaska. We collected water samples from 21 burned and 21 unburned watersheds during snowmelt, at peak growing season, and after plant senescence in 2017 and 2018. After a decade of ecosystem recovery, aboveground biomass had recovered in burned watersheds, but overall carbon and nitrogen remained ~20% lower, and the active layer remained ~10% deeper. Despite lower organic matter stocks, dissolved organic nutrients were substantially elevated in burned watersheds, with higher flow‐weighted concentrations of organic carbon (25% higher), organic nitrogen (59% higher), organic phosphorus (65% higher), and organic sulfur (47% higher). Geochemical proxies indicated greater interaction with mineral soils in watersheds with surface subsidence, but optical analysis and isotopes suggested that recent plant growth, not mineral soil, was the main source of organic nutrients in burned watersheds. Burned and unburned watersheds had similar δ15N‐NO3, indicating that exported nitrogen was of preburn origin (i.e., not recently fixed). Lateral nitrogen flux from burned watersheds was 2‐ to 10‐fold higher than rates of background nitrogen fixation and atmospheric deposition estimated in this area. These findings indicate that wildfire in Arctic tundra can destabilize nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur previously stored in permafrost via plant uptake and leaching. This plant‐mediated nutrient loss could exacerbate terrestrial nutrient limitation after disturbance or serve as an important nutrient release mechanism during succession.

     
    more » « less
  2. Streams and rivers are significant sources of nitrous oxide (N2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4) globally, and watershed management can alter greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from streams. We hypothesized that urban infrastructure significantly alters downstream water quality and contributes to variability in GHG saturation and emissions. We measured gas saturation and estimated emission rates in headwaters of two urban stream networks (Red Run and Dead Run) of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study Long-Term Ecological Research project. We identified four combinations of stormwater and sanitary infrastructure present in these watersheds, including: (1) stream burial, (2) inline stormwater wetlands, (3) riparian/floodplain preservation, and (4) septic systems. We selected two first-order catchments in each of these categories and measured GHG concentrations, emissions, and dissolved inorganic and organic carbon (DIC and DOC) and nutrient concentrations biweekly for 1 year. From a water quality perspective, the DOC : NO3 ratio of streamwater was significantly different across infrastructure categories. Multiple linear regressions including DOC : NO3 and other variables (dissolved oxygen, DO; total dissolved nitrogen, TDN; and temperature) explained much of the statistical variation in nitrous oxide (N2O, r2 =  0.78), carbon dioxide (CO2, r2 =  0.78), and methane (CH4, r2 =  0.50) saturation in stream water. We measured N2O saturation ratios, which were among the highest reported in the literature for streams, ranging from 1.1 to 47 across all sites and dates. N2O saturation ratios were highest in streams draining watersheds with septic systems and strongly correlated with TDN. The CO2 saturation ratio was highly correlated with the N2O saturation ratio across all sites and dates, and the CO2 saturation ratio ranged from 1.1 to 73. CH4 was always supersaturated, with saturation ratios ranging from 3.0 to 2157. Longitudinal surveys extending form headwaters to third-order outlets of Red Run and Dead Run took place in spring and fall. Linear regressions of these data yielded significant negative relationships between each gas with increasing watershed size as well as consistent relationships between solutes (TDN or DOC, and DOC : TDN ratio) and gas saturation. Despite a decline in gas saturation between the headwaters and stream outlet, streams remained saturated with GHGs throughout the drainage network, suggesting that urban streams are continuous sources of CO2, CH4, and N2O. Our results suggest that infrastructure decisions can have significant effects on downstream water quality and greenhouse gases, and watershed management strategies may need to consider coupled impacts on urban water and air quality. 
    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    The Central Siberian Plateau is undergoing rapid climate change that has resulted in increased frequency of forest fires and subsequent alteration of watershed carbon and nutrient dynamics. Across a watershed chronosequence (3 to >100 years since wildfire) we quantified the effects of fire on quantity and composition of dissolved organic matter (DOM), stream water nutrient concentrations, as well as in-stream nutrient uptake. Wildfires increased concentrations of nitrate for a decade, while decreasing concentrations of dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen (DOC and DON) and aliphatic DOM contribution for five decades. These post-wildfire changes in stream DOM result in lower uptake efficiency of in-stream nitrate in recently burned watersheds. Nitrate uptake (as uptake velocity) is strongly dependent on DOM composition (e.g. polyphenolics), ambient dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), and DOC to DIN ratios. Our observations and experiments suggest that a decade-long pulse of inorganic nitrogen and a reduction of DOC export occur following wildfires in streams draining the Central Siberian Plateau. Increased fire frequency in the region is thus likely to both decrease DOM and increase nitrate delivery to the main stem Yenisei River, and ultimately the Arctic Ocean, in the coming decades.

     
    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    We used a recently published, open‐access data set of U.S. streamwater nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) concentrations to test whether watershed land use differentially influences N and P concentrations, including the relative availability of dissolved and particulate nutrient fractions. We tested the hypothesis that N and P concentrations and molar ratios in streams and rivers of the United States reflect differing nutrient inputs from three dominant land‐use types (agricultural, urban and forested). We also tested for differences between dissolved inorganic nutrients and suspended particulate nutrient fractions to infer sources and potential processing mechanisms across spatial and temporal scales. Observed total N and P concentrations often exceeded reported thresholds for structural changes to benthic algae (58, 57% of reported values, respectively), macroinvertebrates (39% for TN and TP), and fish (41, 37%, respectively). The majority of dissolved N and P concentrations exceeded threshold concentrations known to stimulate benthic algal growth (85, 87%, respectively), and organic matter breakdown rates (94, 58%, respectively). Concentrations of both N and P, and total and dissolved N:P ratios, were higher in streams and rivers with more agricultural and urban than forested land cover. The pattern of elevated nutrient concentrations with agricultural and urban land use was weaker for particulate fractions. The % N contained in particles decreased slightly with higher agriculture and urbanization, whereas % P in particles was unrelated to land use. Particulate N:P was relatively constant (interquartile range = 2–7) and independent of variation in DIN:DIP (interquartile range = 22–152). Dissolved, but not particulate, N:P ratios were temporally variable. Constant particulate N:P across steep DIN:DIP gradients in both space and time suggests that the stoichiometry of particulates across U.S. watersheds is most likely controlled either by external or by physicochemical instream factors, rather than by biological processing within streams. Our findings suggest that most U.S. streams and rivers have concentrations of N and P exceeding those considered protective of ecological integrity, retain dissolved N less efficiently than P, which is retained proportionally more in particles, and thus transport and export high N:P streamwater to downstream ecosystems on a continental scale.

     
    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    The global increase of urban impervious land cover poses a significant threat to the integrity of river ecosystems. Hence, it is critical to assess the efficiency of green roofs (GR) to mitigate the negative impacts of urbanization on river ecosystems, such as thermal surges and pollutants. In this study, we evaluated the ecohydrological behaviour of two fully established GR under differing management regimes at the Chicago Botanical Gardens from July to September 2019. The drainage outflow from a non‐vegetated roof, a managed GR (perennial native and non‐native plants) and an unmanaged GR (perennial natural prairie vegetation) were monitored, and thermal dynamics, dissolved organic matter (DOM) composition and nitrate concentration assessed. The managed GR runoff had a lower DOC concentration and less humic‐like DOM signal (SUVA254) compared to the unmanaged GR. In contrast, lower concentrations of nitrate and more recalcitrant DOM (less protein‐like compounds relative to humic‐like compounds) were associated with the unmanaged GR. The unmanaged GR also displayed a greater capacity to reduce thermal surges associated with storm events. Our study provides new information on the implications of GR management for water quality with particular relevance to the urban stream syndrome. Further, the impacts of GR management on the mitigation of thermal surges and DOM composition can help to improve future GR design, as these ecohydrological responses have been largely overlooked to date. Our findings can support future urban planning, particularly for scenarios where green infrastructures are used to mitigate the impacts of climate change on urban river ecosystems.

     
    more » « less