A summary of the scientific literature on the effects of fire on the concentration of nutrients in surface waters

Open-File Report 2004-1296




This paper provides a detailed review of the chemical changes that occur in soil during a fire, the pathways by which nutrients are transferred from soil to surface-water bodies following a fire, and the temporal and spatial effects of fires on the concentration of nutrients in surface-water bodies during and following a fire that have been reported in the scientific literature. Thirty-nine papers from the scientific literature that represent studies that (1) were done in a variety of environments (savannas, grasslands, temperate forests, alpine forests, and so forth); (2) had a range of sampling frequency and duration, such as during and immediately following a fire (from the start of fire to 1 year later), short-term sampling (from end of fire to 3 years later), and long term-sampling (sampling for greater than 3 years following a fire); and (3) incorporated watersheds with various burn intensities, severities, and histories were reviewed and summarized. The review of the scientific literature has revealed that measurable effects of fires on streamwater quality are most likely to occur if the fire was severe enough to burn large amounts of organic matter, if windy conditions were present during the fire, if heavy rain occurred following the fire, and if the fire occurred in a watershed with steep slopes and soils with little cation-exchange capacity. Measurable effects of fires on lake- and reservoir-water quality are most likely to occur if, in addition to the factors listed for streams, the lake or reservoir is oligotrophic or mesotrophic and the residence time of water in the lake or reservoir is short relative to the length of time elevated concentrations of nutrients occur in runoff. Knowledge of whether a lake or reservoir is nitrogen or phosphorus limited is important because eutrophication of nitrogen-limited lakes may occur following a fire due to increasing nitrogen:phosphorus ratios caused by prolonged increases of nitrogen concentrations, especially nitrate.

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A summary of the scientific literature on the effects of fire on the concentration of nutrients in surface waters
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Open-File Report
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Online Only
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23 p.
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