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Wildfire-induced shifts in groundwater discharge to streams identified with paired air and stream water temperature analyses

March 1, 2023

Within the western United States, increasingly severe and frequent wildfires may alter the magnitude, timing, and quality of water exported from burned areas by streams. Post-fire hydrologic studies often focus on peak stream flow responses to shifts in runoff generation or on annual streamflow yield response to changes in evapotranspiration following fire. However, the magnitude and duration of wildfire effects on groundwater recharge, changes in subsurface routing, and consequences for stream low flows sourced predominately by baseflow are poorly understood. Here, we demonstrate an approach using the amplitude and phase of paired annual air and stream water temperature signals to broadly identify changes in watershed subsurface flow contributions after fire. Watersheds were classified using pre-fire temperature data, as having air-coupled (i.e., reduced apparent groundwater signature), deep groundwater, or shallow groundwater stream temperature signals. Changes in pre- and post-fire paired air and stream water temperature metrics were compared for locations (n = 17) spanning a large range of physiographic and climatic conditions across the western United States. Pre- and post-fire comparisons were computed by quantile using bootstrapped confidence intervals (ci = 95), as well as in aggregate using Kruskal-Wallis and post-hoc Dunn tests. Statistical comparisons of pre- and post-fire temperature metrics suggest that overall, watersheds classified as having minimal groundwater influence are the most likely to experience fire-induced subsurface hydrologic change. More specifically, watersheds classified as having air-coupled or shallow groundwater signals experienced increases in the magnitude of groundwater discharge, with more stable annual thermal regimes post-fire that are less-coupled to ambient air temperature. These findings form the basis of a conceptual framework for watershed resistance to subsurface hydrologic change following fire that can be broadly applied as a first approximation for water management, impacts on aquatic habitat, and post-wildfire response planning.

    Publication Year 2023
    Title Wildfire-induced shifts in groundwater discharge to streams identified with paired air and stream water temperature analyses
    DOI 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2023.129272
    Authors David Rey, Martin Briggs, Michelle A. Walvoord, Brian A. Ebel
    Publication Type Article
    Publication Subtype Journal Article
    Series Title Journal of Hydrology
    Index ID 70243279
    Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
    USGS Organization WMA - Observing Systems Division