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Modeling aeolian transport in response to succession, disturbance and future climate: Dynamic long-term risk assessment for contaminant redistribution

January 1, 2012

Aeolian sediment transport is a fundamental process redistributing sediment, nutrients, and contaminants in dryland ecosystems. Over time frames of centuries or longer, horizontal sediment fluxes and associated rates of contaminant transport are likely to be influenced by succession, disturbances, and changes in climate, yet models of horizontal sediment transport that account for these fundamental factors are lacking, precluding in large part accurate assessment of human health risks associated with persistent soil-bound contaminants. We present a simple model based on empirical measurements of horizontal sediment transport (predominantly saltation) to predict potential contaminant transport rates for recently disturbed sites such as a landfill cover. Omnidirectional transport is estimated within vegetation that changes using a simple Markov model that simulates successional trajectory and considers three types of short-term disturbances (surface fire, crown fire, and drought-induced plant mortality) under current and projected climates. The model results highlight that movement of contaminated soil is sensitive to vegetation dynamics and increases substantially (e.g., > fivefold) when disturbance and/or future climate are considered. The time-dependent responses in horizontal sediment fluxes and associated contaminant fluxes were sensitive to variability in the timing of disturbance, with longer intervals between disturbance allowing woody plants to become dominant and crown fire and drought abruptly reducing woody plant cover. Our results, which have direct implications for contaminant transport and landfill management in the specific context of our assessment, also have general relevance because they highlight the need to more fully account for vegetation dynamics, disturbance, and changing climate in aeolian process studies.

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