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Wildfire as a catalyst for hydrologic and geomorphic change

April 24, 2019

Wildfire has been a constant presence on the Earth since at least the Silurian period, and is a landscape-scale catalyst that results in a step-change perturbation for hydrologic systems, which ripples across burned terrain, shaping the geomorphic legacy of watersheds. Specifically, wildfire alters two key landscape properties: (1) overland flow, and (2) soil erodibility. Overland flow and soil erodibility have both been seen to increase after wildfires, resulting in order-of-magnitude increases in erosion rates during rainstorms with relatively frequent recurrence intervals. On short timescales, wildfire increases erosion and leads to natural hazards that are costly and threatening to society. Over longer timescales, wildfire-induced erosion can account for the majority of total denudation in certain settings with long- term implications for landscape evolution. There is a special focus on debris flows in this document because they are the most destructive geomorphic process that is observed to follow wildfires after high severity burns. In the past several decades researchers have investigated important aspects of post-wildfire debris flows, such as: the provenance of sediment that is moved in debris flows, the hydrologic and soil properties required to produce debris flows, and debris flow initiation mechanisms. Herein we highlight the relevant research articles showing the current state of progress in debris flow research as well as pointing to the fundamental research on post-wildfire hydrology and erosion that is necessary for understanding how water and sediment behave after wildfires.

Publication Year 2019
Title Wildfire as a catalyst for hydrologic and geomorphic change
DOI 10.1093/OBO/9780199363445-0112
Authors Francis K. Rengers
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Science
Index ID 70203315
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center