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The legacy of a severe wildfire on stream nitrogen and carbon in headwater catchments

Posted date: September 25, 2018
Publication Year: 
Authors: Rhoades, Charles C.; Chow, Alex T.; Covino, Timothy P.; Fegel, TimothyPierson, Derek; Rhea, Allison E.
Publication Series: 
Scientific Journal (JRNL)
Source: Ecosystems. 22: 643-657.


Large, high-severity wildfires alter the physical and biological conditions that determine how catchments retain and release nutrients and regulate streamwater quality. The short-term water quality impacts of severe wildfire are often dramatic, but the longer-term responses may better reflect terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem recovery. We followed streamwater chemistry for 14 years after the largest fire in recorded Colorado history, the 2002 Hayman Fire, to characterize patterns in nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) export. Throughout the postfire period, stream nitrate and total dissolved N (TDN) remained elevated in 10 burned catchments relative to pre-burn periods and 4 unburned control catchments. Both the extent of fire in a catchment and wildfire severity influenced stream N concentrations. Nitrate was more than an order of magnitude higher in streams draining catchments that burned to a high extent (> 60% of their areas) compared to unburned catchments. Unburned catchments retained more than 95% of atmospheric N inputs, but N retention in burned catchments was less than half of N inputs. Unlike N, stream C was elevated in catchments that burned to a lesser extent (30-60% of their areas burned), compared to either unburned or extensively burned catchments. Remotely sensed estimates of upland and riparian vegetation cover suggest that burned forests could require several more decades before forest cover and nutrient demand return to pre-fire levels. The persistent stream N increases we report are below drinking water thresholds, but exceed ecoregional reference concentrations for healthy stream ecosystems and indicate that extensively burned headwater catchments no longer function as strong sinks for atmospheric N. Combined with increasing trends in wildfire severity and elevated N deposition, our findings demonstrate the potential for substantial post-wildfire changes in ecosystem N retention and have implications for nutrient export to downstream waters.


Rhoades, Charles C.; Chow, Alex T.; Covino, Timothy P.; Fegel, Timothy S.; Pierson, Derek N.; Rhea, Allison E. 2019. The legacy of a severe wildfire on stream nitrogen and carbon in headwater catchments. Ecosystems. 22: 643-657.