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Fire, flood, and drought: Extreme climate events alter flow paths and stream chemistry

August 28, 2018

Extreme climate events—such as hurricanes, droughts, extreme precipitation, and wildfires—have the potential to alter watershed processes and stream response. Yet due to the destructive and hazardous nature and unpredictability of such events, capturing their hydrochemical signal is challenging. A 5‐year postwildfire study of stream chemistry in the Fourmile Creek watershed, Colorado Front Range, USA, focused on high‐frequency storm sampling. During the study, the watershed was impacted by three additional extreme climate events—drought and two periods of extreme rainfall totals. These events altered concentration‐discharge relationships in ways that elucidate how hydrologic flow paths and source material availability affect stream water chemistry. Reduced infiltration after wildfire led to overland flow during thunderstorms, which conveyed ash and soil into streams. This resulted in elevated stream concentrations of constituents elevated in ash—Ca, K, Mg, alkalinity, and dissolved organic carbon—along with sediment and nitrate. Subsurface flow paths were bypassed, leading to low concentrations of Na and SiO2, which are bedrock derived and not elevated in ash. During drought conditions, when stream discharge was <20% of average, concentrations of sediment, dissolved organic carbon, and Ca fell below average concentrations, but SiO2 did not. Extreme rainfall totals saturated the subsurface and led to prolonged elevated stream discharge. Concentration‐discharge relationships for bedrock‐derived constituents, such as Ca and SiO2, were altered in that time period, while those for dissolved organic carbon were not. Previous disturbances, including historical mining, also affect stream chemistry, and water‐quality impairment can be exacerbated by extreme climate events.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2018
Title Fire, flood, and drought: Extreme climate events alter flow paths and stream chemistry
DOI 10.1029/2017JG004349
Authors Sheila F. Murphy, R. Blaine McCleskey, Deborah A. Martin, Jeffrey H. Writer, Brian A. Ebel
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Geophysical Research G: Biogeosciences
Series Number
Index ID 70198943
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Research Program - Central Branch