Biophysical Interactions within Step-Pool Mountain Streams Following Wildfire
Thursday, 18 December 2014
Recovery of riverine ecosystems following disturbance is driven by a variety of interacting processes. Wildfires pose increasing disturbances to riverine landscapes, with rising frequencies and magnitudes owing to warming climates and increased fuel loads. The effects of wildfire include loss of vegetation, elevated runoff and flash floods, erosion and deposition, and changing biological habitats and communities. Understanding process interactions in post-fire landscapes is increasingly urgent for successful management and restoration of affected ecosystems. In steep channels, steps and pools provide prominent habitats for organisms and structural integrity in high energy environments. Step-pools are typically stable, responding to extreme events with recurrence intervals often exceeding 50 years. Once wildfire occurs, however, intensification of post-fire flood events can potentially overpower the inherent stability of these systems, with significant consequences for aquatic life and human well-being downstream. This study examined the short-term response of step-pool streams following the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado. We explored interacting feedbacks among geomorphology, hydrology, and ecology in the post-fire environment. At selected sites with varying burn severity, we established baseline conditions immediately after the fire with channel surveys, biological assessment using benthic macroinvertebrates, sediment analysis including pebble counts, and precipitation gauging. Repeat measurements after major storm events over several years enabled analysis of the interacting feedbacks among post-fire processes. We found that channels able to retain the step-pool structure changed less and facilitated recovery more readily. Step habitats maintained higher percentages of sensitive macroinvertebrate taxa compared to pools through post-fire floods. Sites burned with high severity experienced greater reduction in the percentage of sensitive taxa. The decimation of macroinvertebrates closely coincides with the physical destruction of the step-pool morphology. The role that step-pools play in enhancing the ecological quality of fluvial systems, therefore, provides a key focus for effective management and restoration of aquatic resources following wildfires.