Effect of Wildfire on Sediment Sorting in a Steep Channel

Friday, 19 December 2014
Joan L Florsheim, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, United States, Anne Chin, University of Colorado Denver, Geography and Envinronmental Sciences, Denver, CO, United States, Linda O'Hirok, California State University Channel Islands, Environmental Studies, Camarillo, CA, United States and Rune Storesund, Storesund Consulting, Kensington, CA, United States
Wildfire is an external forcing factor in the landscape. In chaparral environments, wildfire initiates transport of well-sorted fine sediment through dry-ravel processes on hillslopes and facilitates delivery of sediment to stream channels. In turn, this periodic post-fire sediment influx governs sorting of channel-bed material during subsequent floods that mobilize and transport the sediment downstream. We investigated the effects of the May 2013 Springs Wildfire in the Santa Monica Mountains in semi-arid southern California with field measurements and terrestrial LiDAR scanning. Before the fire, sediment sorting within the heterogeneous bed material present in Big Sycamore Creek was controlled by organized step-pool bedforms. Boulders formed steps with relatively finer cobbles, gravel, and sand filling the pools. Before the fire, the grain size distribution present in the substrate between boulder steps was relatively coarse (D84 = 250 mm), in contrast to that in the influx of sediment contributed by post-fire dry-ravel processes deposited at channel margins (D84 = 8 mm). Flow shear stress during one small flood in 2014 (post-fire) was adequate to mobilize fine dry ravel- related sediment. Transport capacity was sufficient to mobilize and transport this sediment within a study reach; however, it was not adequate to flush the fine material downstream. Shear stress required to mobilize sediment contributed by dry ravel was substantially less than that required to transport the substrate material present before the wildfire. The small flood deposited fine sediment (D84 = 16 mm) as flow lost capacity. Resulting deposition buried bedforms, changing the step-pool profile to a plane bed. The relatively poorly sorted, coarse, rough bed changed to a well sorted, fine, smooth, bed. These changes have implications for sediment transport dynamics and aquatic ecology. In steep, semi-arid, chaparral fluvial systems, sediment derived from dry-ravel processes influences the spatial distribution of grain sizes and associated channel morphology at basin to bedform spatial scales over various periods. The longevity of such well-sorted sediment depends on climate-driven-storm sequences and the transport capacity of associated flows to mobilize and transport the material and/or reestablish former morphologies.