Phosphorus and nitrogen dynamics in streams associated with wildfire: A study of immediate and longterm effects

  • Hauer F
  • Spencer C
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Stream nutrient data were collected both during a wildfire and over a subsequent five-year period. Sampling was from a series of paired watersheds located within and outside of the wildfire. Phosphorus and nitrogen concentrations increased from 5 to 60 fold over background levels during the first few days of the month-long wildfire with maximum recorded concentrations as high as 135 μg/L soluble reactive phosphorus, 261 μg/L ammonium, and 61 μg/L nitrate. Total phosphorus and total nitrogen during this same time period increased up to 206 μg/L and 349 mμg/L, respectively. Nutrient concentrations declined to background levels (40 μg/L soluble reactive phosphorus and >125 μg/L nitrate in impacted streams, concentrations >5 fold over those observed in control streams. In high gradient watersheds, all nutrients were easily transported to the streams with most notable impact during the early years after the fire. In less steep terrain, soluble reactive phosphorus concentrations were significantly higher 3 to 5 years after the fire, which also corresponded to relatively high spring hydrographs. In contrast, nitrogen compounds were observed to be significantly higher in concentration in fire impact streams in the years immediately following the fire. We attribute these differences in the rate of nutrient loads to be the result of the different mobilization mechanisms of phosphorus and nitrogen and the different soil and geomorphic settings of the watersheds drained by the different streams.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrients
  • Phosphorus
  • Rocky Mountains
  • Streams
  • Water chemistry
  • Wildfire

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  • F. Richard Hauer

  • Craig N. Spencer

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