skip to main content

Title: Life after a fiery death: Fire and plant biomass loading affect dissolved organic matter in experimental ponds

Drier and hotter conditions linked with anthropogenic climate change can increase wildfire frequency and severity, influencing terrestrial and aquatic carbon cycles at broad spatial and temporal scales. The impacts of wildfire are complex and dependent on several factors that may increase terrestrial deposition and the influx of dissolved organic matter (DOM) from plants into nearby aquatic systems, resulting in the darkening of water color. We tested the effects of plant biomass quantity and its interaction with fire (burned vs. unburned plant biomass) on dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentration and degradation (biological vs. photochemical) and DOM composition in 400 L freshwater ponds using a gradient experimental design. DOC concentration increased nonlinearly with plant biomass loading in both treatments, with overall higher concentrations (>56 mg/L) in the unburned treatment shortly after plant addition. We also observed nonlinear trends in fluorescence and UV‐visible absorbance spectroscopic indices as a function of fire treatment and plant biomass, such as greater humification and specific UV absorbance at 254 nm (a proxy for aromatic DOM) over time. DOM humification occurred gradually over time with less humification in the burned treatment compared to the unburned treatment. Both burned and unburned biomass released noncolored, low molecular weight carbon compounds that were rapidly consumed by microbes. DOC decomposition exhibited a unimodal relationship with plant biomass, with microbes contributing more to DOC loss than photodegradation at intermediate biomass levels (100–300 g). Our findings demonstrate that the quantity of plant biomass leads to nonlinear responses in the dynamics and composition of DOM in experimental ponds that are altered by fire, indicating how disturbances interactively affect DOM processing and its role in aquatic environments.

more » « less
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Global Change Biology
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Fire can lead to transitions between forest and grassland ecosystems and trigger positive feedbacks to climate warming by releasing CO2into the atmosphere. Climate change is projected to increase the prevalence and severity of wildfires. However, fire effects on the fate and impact of terrestrial organic matter (i.e., terrestrial subsidies) in aquatic ecosystems are unclear. Here, we performed a gradient design experiment in freshwater pond mesocosms adding 15 different amounts of burned or unburned plant detritus and tracking the chronology of detritus effects at 10, 31, 59, and 89 days. We show terrestrial subsidies had time‐ and mass‐dependent, non‐linear impacts on ecosystem function that influenced dissolved organic carbon (DOC), ecosystem metabolism (net primary production and respiration), greenhouse gas concentrations (carbon dioxide [CO2], methane [CH4]), and trophic transfer. These impacts were shifted by fire treatment. Burning increased the elemental concentration of detritus (increasing %N, %P, %K), with cascading effects on ecosystem function. Mesocosms receiving burned detritus had lower [DOC] and [CO2] and higher dissolved oxygen (DO) through Day 59. Fire magnified the effects of plant detritus on aquatic ecosystem metabolism by stimulating photosynthesis and respiration at intermediate detritus‐loading through Day 89. The effect of loading on DO was similar for burned and unburned treatments (Day 10); however, burned‐detritus in the highest loading treatments led to sustained hypoxia (through Day 31), and long‐term destabilization of ecosystem metabolism through Day 89. In addition, fire affected trophic transfer by increasing autochthonous nitrogen source utilization and reducing the incorporation of15N‐labeled detritus into plankton biomass, thereby reducing the flux of terrestrial subsidies to higher trophic levels. Our results indicate fire chemically transforms plant detritus and alters the role of aquatic ecosystems in processing and storing carbon. Wildfire may therefore induce shifts in ecosystem functions that cross the boundary between aquatic and terrestrial habitats.

    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    Tidal wetlands are a significant source of dissolved organic matter (DOM) to coastal ecosystems, which impacts nutrient cycling, light exposure, carbon dynamics, phytoplankton activity, microbial growth, and ecosystem productivity. There is a wide variety of research on the properties and sources of DOM; however, little is known about the characteristics and degradation of DOM specifically sourced from tidal wetland plants. By conducting microbial and combined UV exposure and microbial incubation experiments of leachates from fresh and senescent plants in Chesapeake Bay wetlands, it was demonstrated that senescent material leached more dissolved organic carbon (DOC) than fresh material (77.9 ± 54.3 vs 21.6 ± 11.8 mg DOC L−1, respectively). Degradation followed an exponential decay pattern, and the senescent material averaged 50.5 ± 9.45% biodegradable DOC (%BDOC), or the loss of DOC due to microbial degradation. In comparison, the fresh material averaged a greater %BDOC (72.6 ± 19.2%). Percent remaining of absorbance (83.3 ± 26.7% for fresh, 90.1 ± 10.8% for senescent) was greater than percent remaining DOC, indicating that colored DOM is less bioavailable than non-colored material. Concentrations of DOC leached, %BDOC, and SUVA280 varied between species, indicating that the species composition of the marsh likely impacts the quantity and quality of exported DOC. Comparing the UV + microbial to the microbial only incubations did not reveal any clear effects on %BDOC but UV exposure enhanced loss of absorbance during subsequent dark incubation. These results demonstrate the impacts of senescence on the quality and concentration of DOM leached from tidal wetland plants, and that microbes combined with UV impact the degradation of this DOM differently from microbes alone.

    more » « less
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. Abstract

    Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) flux from rivers in the pan‐Arctic watershed represents an important connection between major terrestrial carbon stocks and the Arctic Ocean. Previous estimates of Arctic carbon flux and dissolved organic matter (DOM) seasonal dynamics have relied predominantly on measurements from the six major Arctic rivers, yet these may not be representative of northern high‐latitude constrained smaller watersheds. Here, we evaluate DOC concentration and DOM composition in the Onega River, a small Arctic watershed, using optical measurements and ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry. Compared to the six largest Arctic rivers, DOC, absorbance ata350, and indicators of terrestrial DOM (e.g., specific UV absorbance at 254 nm, modified aromaticity index, relative abundance of condensed aromatics and polyphenolics) were elevated in the Onega throughout the year. Seasonality was also generally muted in comparison to the major Arctic rivers with relatively elevated DOC and terrestrial markers in both spring and fall seasons. The Onega exhibits a strong relationship betweena350and DOC, and its organic‐rich nature is apparent in its high DOC yield (4.85 g m2yr−1), and higher chromophoric DOM per unit DOC than the six largest Arctic rivers. As DOC yield from the Onega may be more representative of smaller northern high‐latitude rivers, we derived a new pan‐Arctic DOC flux scaling estimate which is over 50% higher than previous estimates scaled solely from the six major Arctic rivers. These observations suggest that smaller northern high‐latitude rivers may be underrepresented in Arctic carbon flux models and highlights uncertainty around constraining the export of DOC to the Arctic Ocean.

    more » « less