Illuminating wildfire erosion and deposition patterns with repeat terrestrial lidar

Journal of Geophysical Research F: Earth Surface
By: , and 



Erosion following a wildfire is much greater than background erosion in forests because of wildfire-induced changes to soil erodibility and water infiltration. While many previous studies have documented post-wildfire erosion with point and small plot-scale measurements, the spatial distribution of post-fire erosion patterns at the watershed scale remains largely unexplored. In this study lidar surveys were collected periodically in a small, first-order drainage basin over a period of 2 years following a wildfire. The study site was relatively steep with slopes ranging from 17° to > 30°. During the study period, several different types of rain storms occurred on the site including low-intensity frontal storms (2.4 mm h−1) and high-intensity convective thunderstorms (79 mm h−1). These storms were the dominant drivers of erosion. Erosion resulting from dry ravel and debris flows was notably absent at the site. Successive lidar surveys were subtracted from one another to obtain digital maps of topographic change between surveys. The results show an evolution in geomorphic response, such that the erosional response after rain storms was strongly influenced by the previous erosional events and pre-fire site morphology. Hillslope and channel roughness increased over time, and the watershed armored as coarse cobbles and boulders were exposed. The erosional response was spatially nonuniform; shallow erosion from hillslopes (87% of the study area) contributed 3 times more sediment volume than erosion from convergent areas (13% of the study area). However, the total normalized erosion depth (volume/area) was highest in convergent areas. From a detailed understanding of the spatial locations of erosion, we made inferences regarding the processes driving erosion. It appears that hillslope erosion is controlled by rain splash (for detachment) and overland flow (for transport and quasi-channelized erosion), with the sites of highest erosion corresponding to locations with the lowest roughness. By contrast, in convergent areas we found erosion caused by overland flow. Soil erosion was locally interrupted by immobile objects such as boulders, bedrock, or tree trunks, resulting in a patchy erosion network with increasing roughness over time.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Illuminating wildfire erosion and deposition patterns with repeat terrestrial lidar
Series title Journal of Geophysical Research F: Earth Surface
DOI 10.1002/2015JF003600
Volume 121
Issue 3
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher American Geophysical Union
Publisher location Richmond, VA
Contributing office(s) Geologic Hazards Science Center
Description 21 p.
First page 588
Last page 608
Country United States
State Colorado
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details