Implications of fire-induced evapotranspiration shifts for recharge-runoff generation and vegetation conversion in the western United States

Journal of Hydrology X
By: , and 



Wildfire has been shown to increase, decrease, or have no detectable effect on actual evapotranspiration (ETa) fluxes in the western United States. Where disturbance-induced shifts are significant, source-water hydrology may be impacted as ETa constitutes the largest outgoing water flux in much of the arid West. We conducted pixel-scale analysis of 30-m ETa data and various meteorologic and landscape variables at 13 burn scars to understand how wildfire disturbance impacted hillslope-to-burn scar-scale hydrology and vegetation conversion. Significant fire-induced ETa reductions (between approximately −15 to −50%) were detected at nine burn scars through the tenth post-fire year, while ETa recovery rate varied substantially by ecoregion and pre-fire vegetation type. Along elevation gradients, both climate and land disturbance influenced the location of runoff/recharge generation zones, and more net water was generated from a snow-dominated burn scar in dry post-fire years than in wet pre-fire years. However, especially in arid locations where ETa is water-limited, compensatory ETa pathways may be more likely to dampen fire effects on total basin water yield where intact vegetation is located between the disturbance footprint and the basin outlet. Relationships between post-fire ETa shifts and early-successional vegetation conversion were also tracked. The majority of burn scars with significant fire-induced ETa reductions experienced conversion patterns typical of the western United States following stand-replacing disturbance, with forests converting to shrub/scrub and/or grassland/herbaceous cover through at least the end of the study period (eight to 15 years depending on date of the fire event). This could have important implications for high-elevation, snow-dominated watersheds – some of the most critical source water areas - as previous research indicates that wildfire activity is moving upslope and into vegetation communities that have not evolved to withstand fire. Finally, we show that much of the Colorado River Basin’s high-yield source water areas are vulnerable to the fire-induced ETa reductions and vegetation conversion observed herein. As such, water managers in the Colorado River Basin can anticipate changes in burn scar hydrology and snowpack mechanics following fire disturbance.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Implications of fire-induced evapotranspiration shifts for recharge-runoff generation and vegetation conversion in the western United States
Series title Journal of Hydrology X
DOI 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2023.129646
Volume 621
Year Published 2023
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) WMA - Earth System Processes Division, WMA - Integrated Modeling and Prediction Division
Description 129646, 18 p.
Country United States
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