Fire-produced coarse woody debris and its role in sediment storage on hillslopes

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Abstract

Interactions between vegetation and sediment in post-fire landscapes play a critical role in sediment connectivity. Prior research has focused on the effects of vegetation removal from hillslopes, but little attention has been paid to the effects of coarse woody debris (CWD) added to the forest floor following fires. We investigate the impacts of CWD on hillslope sediment storage in post-fire environments. First, we present a new conceptual model, identifying “active” storage scenarios where sediment is trapped upslope of fire-produced debris such as logs, and additional “passive” storage scenarios including the reduced effectiveness of tree-throw due to burnt roots and snapped stems. Second, we use tilt table experiments to test controls on sediment storage capacity. Physical modeling suggests storage varies nonlinearly with log orientation and hillslope gradient, and the maximum storage capacity of log barriers in systems with high sediment fluxes likely exceeds estimates that assume simple sediment pile geometries. Last, we calculate hillslope sediment storage capacity in a burned catchment in southwest Montana by combining high-resolution topographic data and digitization of over 5000 downed logs from aerial imagery. We estimate that from 3500–14 000 m3 of sediment was potentially stored upslope of logs. These estimates assume that all downed logs store sediment, a process that is likely temporally dynamic as storage capacity evolves with CWD decay. Our results highlight the role that CWD plays in limiting rapid sediment movement in recently burned systems. Using a range of potential soil production rates (50–100 mm/ky), CWD would buffer the downslope transport of ~35–280 years of soil produced across the landscape, indicating that fire-produced CWD may serve as an important source of sediment disconnectivity in catchments. These results suggest that disturbance events have previously unaccounted-for mechanisms of increasing hillslope sediment storage that should be incorporated into models of sediment connectivity.

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Adams, K. V., Dixon, J. L., Wilcox, A. C., & McWethy, D. (2023). Fire-produced coarse woody debris and its role in sediment storage on hillslopes. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 48(9), 1665–1678. https://doi.org/10.1002/esp.5573

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