October 4, 2019
Research Highlight

Fire Increases Ecosystem Vulnerability to Future Disturbance Events

Burned landscapes are hit harder by extreme rain than unscathed ones.

Image of forest fire

The Science         
New work from a team including researchers Vanessa Garayburu-Caruso, Swatantar Kumar, and corresponding author Emily Graham at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and Joseph Knelman at the University of Colorado, examines how back-to-back extreme events can affect a forest landscape. They find that a forest fire leaves marks far deeper than the destruction visible on the surface, making the soil more vulnerable to damage from subsequent flooding.

The Impact
This study is one of a few in an emerging field of investigation that is able to capture ecosystem effects of multiple disturbances in natural settings. It bridges scientific disciplines by linking changes in soil chemistry, microbiome structure, and biogeochemical function using methods from ecological theory.

Extreme natural events are often thought to be in isolation from each other—a big wildfire in one season, heavy rains in another. But as climate change makes such disturbances more frequent and intense, ecosystems are likely to face chains of disturbance events in relatively quick succession, with one instance affecting the ability to recover from the next.  The compounding effects of multiple disturbances on ecosystem health remain poorly understood, since the unpredictability of natural events makes them challenging to study.

To better understand the issue, the researchers repeatedly collected soil samples in Boulder, Colorado’s Four Mile Canyon for over three years after a major wildfire. At the 37-month mark, an extreme precipitation event dropped more than 400 millimeters of rain within a week. Samples were collected from an undisturbed forest landscape and an adjacent fire-disturbed landscape, allowing the researchers to investigate the combined effects of multiple disturbances in comparison to a landscape experiencing flooding only. Researchers assessed the samples’ soil edaphic properties (moisture, pH, percent nitrogen, and percent carbon); bacterial community composition and assembly; and soil enzyme activities. They found that previous fire exposure caused forests to be more strongly affected by a subsequent flooding event than unburned forests. This was driven by increases in pH, shifts in microbiome structure, and increased microbial investment in nitrogen versus carbon cycling.

The team is also investigating compounding disturbances using the Columbia River as a model system. River stage variation in the Columbia causes frequent wetting and drying of the shoreline that provides a natural laboratory for investigating compounding disturbances. Results are expected in the fall of fiscal year 2020.

Emily B. Graham, Quantitative Ecosystem Ecologist, emily.graham@pnnl.gov

This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER), as part of the Subsurface Biogeochemical Research Scientific Focus Area (SFA) at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).  

Published: October 4, 2019

J.E. Knelman, S.K. Schmidt, V. Garayburu-Caruso, S. Kumar, E.B. Graham, “Multiple, Compounding Disturbances in a Forest Ecosystem: Fire Increases Susceptibility of Soil Edaphic Properties, Bacterial Community Structure, and Function to Change with Extreme Precipitation Event.” Soil Systems (2019) 3(2):40.