Rainfall-Runoff Dynamics Following Wildfire in Mountainous Headwater Catchments, Alberta, Canada.
Abstract:Severe wildfire has been shown to increase the magnitude and advance the timing of rainfall-generated stormflows across a range of hydro-climate regions. Loss of canopy and forest floor interception results in increased net precipitation which, along with the removal of forest organic layers and increased shorter-term water repellency, can result in strongly increased surface flow pathways and efficient routing of precipitation to streams. These abrupt changes have the potential to exacerbate flood impacts and alter the timing of runoff delivery to streams. However, while these effects are well documented in drier temperate mountain regions, changes in post-fire rainfall-runoff processes are less well understood in colder, more northern, snowfall dominated regimes.
The objectives of this study are to explore longer term precipitation and runoff dynamics of burned and unburned (reference) watersheds from the Southern Rockies Watershed Project (SRWP) after the 2003 Lost Creek wildfire in the front-range Rocky Mountains of southwestern Alberta, Canada. Streamflow and precipitation were measured in 5 watersheds (3.7 – 10.4 km2) for 10 years following the wildfire (2005-2014). Measurements were collected from a dense network of meteorological and hydrometric stations. Stormflow volume, peak flow, time to peak flow, and total annual streamflow were compared between burned and reference streams. Event-based data were separated into 3 post-fire periods to detect changes in rainfall-runoff dynamics as vegetation regenerated.
Despite large increases in post-fire snowpacks and net summer rainfall, rainfall-generated runoff from fire-affected watersheds was not large in comparison to that reported from more temperate snowfall-dominated Rocky Mountain hydrologic settings. High proportions of groundwater contribution to annual runoff regimes (as opposed to surface flow pathways) and groundwater storage were likely contributors to greater watershed resistance to wildfire effects in these northern Rocky Mountain catchments.