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Title: Synthesis of Post-fire Monitoring Activities in the Great Basin Desert, Mojave Desert, and Transition Zones

Abstract

In the deserts of the American Southwest, fire return intervals of centuries to millennia are being replaced by fire return intervals of decades. This increased burn frequency has implications for post-closure management and long-term stewardship for Soils Corrective Action Units (CAUs) and Corrective Action Sites (CASs) on the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), Tonopah Test Range, and Nevada Test and Training Range for which the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Management-Nevada (EM-NV) is responsible. For many CAUs and CASs, where closure-in-place alternatives were implemented or are being considered, there is a chance that these sites could burn over while they still pose a risk to the environment or human health given the long half-lives of some of the radionuclide contaminants of concern (COCs) (Shafer et al., 2007; Shafer and Gomes, 2009). Although it would have been ideal to conduct a fire-related study at a radionuclide contaminated site on the NNSS to determine how contaminated soils are transported post-fire, it was more practical to examine fires in environments analogous to where Soils Activity CAUs and CASs exist. Therefore, a series of studies were initiated at three radiologically uncontaminated analog sites to better understand the possible effects of wildfire on erosionmore » and sediment transport by wind and water should vegetation at contaminated sites burn at the NNSS. The studies took place at the sites of the Gleason Fire, a prescribed burn that occurred near Ely, Nevada, which is in the Great Basin ecoregion; the White Rock Fire that occurred near Mesquite, Nevada, which is in the Mojave Desert ecoregion; and the Jacob Fire that occurred near Hiko, Nevada, in the transitional zone between the Great Basin Desert and the Mojave Desert. Each site was representative of one of the three ecoregions found on the NNSS. Erosion and vegetation characteristics were measured multiple times post-fire on both burned and unburned test plots at these study sites to compare and monitor the effects of fire over time. However, at the Mojave Desert site, there was an additional burn from nearly 25 years ago that was also compared with the more recent burned areas from 2013. Also, the time elapsed after the fire and the time when sampling began differed among the ecoregions. For example, at the Great Basin site, samples were collected prior to the fire and less than one month after the fire, whereas data collected at the Mojave Desert site did not occur until 22 months after the fire. The differences between the sample measurements and the time that elapsed after the fire may contribute to the variability in the data and the interpretations of the data. Runoff and water erosion were quantified through a series of rainfall and runoff simulation tests in which controlled amounts of water were delivered to the soil surface. Runoff data were collected from different microhabitats (e.g., undercanopies, interspace soils, ridges, and drainage areas). The data showed soil hydrophobicity (i.e., water repellency) on the Great Basin site for up to 12 months after the fire. The soil structure remained changed and weaker on the burned areas compared with the unburned areas for the three-year study period. Although runoff data at both the Great Basin site and transition zone site were highly variable, the post-fire runoff potential did not generally increase at either location after three years of monitoring. Mojave runoff did not differ much between fire ages or between burned and unburned areas, possibly because of the amount of vegetation growing on all three surfaces and because the fire intensity was likely lower relative to other ecoregions due to the amount of space between plants. Additionally, the measurements conducted on the Mojave fire occurred several years after the fire had burned and not within several months of the burn, which may also account for the lack of differences in runoff between burned and unburned locations. Wind erosion was assessed and quantified with a Portable In-Situ Wind ERosion Lab (PI-SWERL) on both the burned and unburned soils of different microhabitats (e.g., ridges, drainages, interspaces between plants, and plant undercanopies). Estimates of emissions (e.g., particulate matter with aerodynamic diameters less than or equal to 10 micrometers, or PM10) at different wind speeds were collected and filter samples were analyzed for chemical composition. The measurements among the fires were similar and the results of the wind erosion measurements indicate that there were seasonal influences on many parameters, but the potential for PM10 windblown dust emissions was higher on burned areas compared with unburned areas. Among the burned areas, drainages produced the most dust emissions, whereas burned ridges were the least emissive. Emissions at the Mojave site and transition zone site were similar between burned and unburned areas approximately three years after the respective fires. Emissions remained much greater on burned soils at the Great Basin site. However, site selection may have also contributed to the differences of emissions among the three study locations. Post-fire vegetation responses were documented for three years following each fire in different microhabitats (e.g., ridge, drainage, undercanopy, and interspace) at the Great Basin and transition zone sites. In 2013, at the Mojave fire site, random permanent plots were established in newly burned areas, areas that burned approximately 25 years ago, and an unburned control area. At each fire site, the regeneration of native plant species dominated the burned areas, but invasive annual grasses were present at each fire site. During the course of each three-year study, the invasive annual grasses increased in density or percentage at both the Great Basin and transition fire sites but not at the Mojave site, where annual invasive grasses remained high throughout the study period. However, the chronosequence data from the Mojave site indicate a transition to different invasive grass species with time. The post-burn vegetation at all three ecoregions is still in the early stages of succession, and shrub size should increase over time and shrub density should decrease over time. However, the recovery of the plant communities to pre-burn compositions may not occur for decades or centuries, or may not occur because of changes in climate and the presence of invasive annual grasses. Results from the three study locations suggested that contaminated soils on the NNSS that experienced wildfire had the potential for soil erosion and transport of contaminated soils. Both wind and soil runoff studies indicated that locations in the Great Basin and transition zone ecoregions were more susceptible to erosion than the Mojave Desert ecoregion, but the highest levels of erosion occurred during the early portions of the study (the first 24 months) and the Mojave Desert was not measured until 22 months after the burn. Additionally, data from the Great Basin indicated deeper soils may increase susceptibility to wind erosion. Historically, the Great Basin and transition zone ecoregions burned more frequently than the Mojave Desert because of fuel abundance and connectivity—and they continue to burn more frequently, particularly after the introduction of invasive grasses (Davies and Nafus, 2013). However, both ecoregions and the transition zone have burned with extensive, high-severity fires when certain weather and fuel conditions are met. For example, the high abundance and productivity of annual grasses and forbs—which are usually produced by above average winter precipitation—combined with early spring and summer warm, dry conditions. Future climate scenarios predict increased temperatures, variable to reduced precipitation, and larger, more extreme wildfires throughout western North America. These predictions suggest that future fires on the NNSS could increase in frequency, intensity, and severity similar to their analog ecosystems throughout the Great Basin and Mojave Desert (Dennison et al., 2014; Abatzoglou andWilliams, 2016; Westerling, 2016).« less

Authors:
 [1];  [1];  [1];  [1]
  1. Desert Research Inst. (DRI), Las Vegas, NV (United States)
Publication Date:
Research Org.:
Nevada Univ., Reno, NV (United States). Desert Research Inst.
Sponsoring Org.:
USDOE Office of Environmental Management (EM)
OSTI Identifier:
1480331
Report Number(s):
45282; DOE/NV/-0003590-11
DOE Contract Number:  
NA0003590; NA0000939
Resource Type:
Technical Report
Country of Publication:
United States
Language:
English
Subject:
54 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES; deserts; fire; fire return interval; CAU; CAS; NNSS; TTR; Nevada Test and Training Range; risk; environment; human health; radionuclide; sediment; wind; vegetation; Ely; Mesquite; Mojave Desert; ecoregions; runoff; water erosion; rainfall; siumation test; microhabitats; undercanopies; soils; ridges; drainage areas; hydrophobicity; transition zones; monitoring; emissions; invasive grasses; chronosequence; composition; stages of succession; climate; precipitation; wildfires

Citation Formats

Clifford, Michael, Etyemezian, Vicken, Chen, Li, and Nikolich, George. Synthesis of Post-fire Monitoring Activities in the Great Basin Desert, Mojave Desert, and Transition Zones. United States: N. p., 2018. Web. doi:10.2172/1480331.
Clifford, Michael, Etyemezian, Vicken, Chen, Li, & Nikolich, George. Synthesis of Post-fire Monitoring Activities in the Great Basin Desert, Mojave Desert, and Transition Zones. United States. doi:10.2172/1480331.
Clifford, Michael, Etyemezian, Vicken, Chen, Li, and Nikolich, George. Wed . "Synthesis of Post-fire Monitoring Activities in the Great Basin Desert, Mojave Desert, and Transition Zones". United States. doi:10.2172/1480331. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1480331.
@article{osti_1480331,
title = {Synthesis of Post-fire Monitoring Activities in the Great Basin Desert, Mojave Desert, and Transition Zones},
author = {Clifford, Michael and Etyemezian, Vicken and Chen, Li and Nikolich, George},
abstractNote = {In the deserts of the American Southwest, fire return intervals of centuries to millennia are being replaced by fire return intervals of decades. This increased burn frequency has implications for post-closure management and long-term stewardship for Soils Corrective Action Units (CAUs) and Corrective Action Sites (CASs) on the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), Tonopah Test Range, and Nevada Test and Training Range for which the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Management-Nevada (EM-NV) is responsible. For many CAUs and CASs, where closure-in-place alternatives were implemented or are being considered, there is a chance that these sites could burn over while they still pose a risk to the environment or human health given the long half-lives of some of the radionuclide contaminants of concern (COCs) (Shafer et al., 2007; Shafer and Gomes, 2009). Although it would have been ideal to conduct a fire-related study at a radionuclide contaminated site on the NNSS to determine how contaminated soils are transported post-fire, it was more practical to examine fires in environments analogous to where Soils Activity CAUs and CASs exist. Therefore, a series of studies were initiated at three radiologically uncontaminated analog sites to better understand the possible effects of wildfire on erosion and sediment transport by wind and water should vegetation at contaminated sites burn at the NNSS. The studies took place at the sites of the Gleason Fire, a prescribed burn that occurred near Ely, Nevada, which is in the Great Basin ecoregion; the White Rock Fire that occurred near Mesquite, Nevada, which is in the Mojave Desert ecoregion; and the Jacob Fire that occurred near Hiko, Nevada, in the transitional zone between the Great Basin Desert and the Mojave Desert. Each site was representative of one of the three ecoregions found on the NNSS. Erosion and vegetation characteristics were measured multiple times post-fire on both burned and unburned test plots at these study sites to compare and monitor the effects of fire over time. However, at the Mojave Desert site, there was an additional burn from nearly 25 years ago that was also compared with the more recent burned areas from 2013. Also, the time elapsed after the fire and the time when sampling began differed among the ecoregions. For example, at the Great Basin site, samples were collected prior to the fire and less than one month after the fire, whereas data collected at the Mojave Desert site did not occur until 22 months after the fire. The differences between the sample measurements and the time that elapsed after the fire may contribute to the variability in the data and the interpretations of the data. Runoff and water erosion were quantified through a series of rainfall and runoff simulation tests in which controlled amounts of water were delivered to the soil surface. Runoff data were collected from different microhabitats (e.g., undercanopies, interspace soils, ridges, and drainage areas). The data showed soil hydrophobicity (i.e., water repellency) on the Great Basin site for up to 12 months after the fire. The soil structure remained changed and weaker on the burned areas compared with the unburned areas for the three-year study period. Although runoff data at both the Great Basin site and transition zone site were highly variable, the post-fire runoff potential did not generally increase at either location after three years of monitoring. Mojave runoff did not differ much between fire ages or between burned and unburned areas, possibly because of the amount of vegetation growing on all three surfaces and because the fire intensity was likely lower relative to other ecoregions due to the amount of space between plants. Additionally, the measurements conducted on the Mojave fire occurred several years after the fire had burned and not within several months of the burn, which may also account for the lack of differences in runoff between burned and unburned locations. Wind erosion was assessed and quantified with a Portable In-Situ Wind ERosion Lab (PI-SWERL) on both the burned and unburned soils of different microhabitats (e.g., ridges, drainages, interspaces between plants, and plant undercanopies). Estimates of emissions (e.g., particulate matter with aerodynamic diameters less than or equal to 10 micrometers, or PM10) at different wind speeds were collected and filter samples were analyzed for chemical composition. The measurements among the fires were similar and the results of the wind erosion measurements indicate that there were seasonal influences on many parameters, but the potential for PM10 windblown dust emissions was higher on burned areas compared with unburned areas. Among the burned areas, drainages produced the most dust emissions, whereas burned ridges were the least emissive. Emissions at the Mojave site and transition zone site were similar between burned and unburned areas approximately three years after the respective fires. Emissions remained much greater on burned soils at the Great Basin site. However, site selection may have also contributed to the differences of emissions among the three study locations. Post-fire vegetation responses were documented for three years following each fire in different microhabitats (e.g., ridge, drainage, undercanopy, and interspace) at the Great Basin and transition zone sites. In 2013, at the Mojave fire site, random permanent plots were established in newly burned areas, areas that burned approximately 25 years ago, and an unburned control area. At each fire site, the regeneration of native plant species dominated the burned areas, but invasive annual grasses were present at each fire site. During the course of each three-year study, the invasive annual grasses increased in density or percentage at both the Great Basin and transition fire sites but not at the Mojave site, where annual invasive grasses remained high throughout the study period. However, the chronosequence data from the Mojave site indicate a transition to different invasive grass species with time. The post-burn vegetation at all three ecoregions is still in the early stages of succession, and shrub size should increase over time and shrub density should decrease over time. However, the recovery of the plant communities to pre-burn compositions may not occur for decades or centuries, or may not occur because of changes in climate and the presence of invasive annual grasses. Results from the three study locations suggested that contaminated soils on the NNSS that experienced wildfire had the potential for soil erosion and transport of contaminated soils. Both wind and soil runoff studies indicated that locations in the Great Basin and transition zone ecoregions were more susceptible to erosion than the Mojave Desert ecoregion, but the highest levels of erosion occurred during the early portions of the study (the first 24 months) and the Mojave Desert was not measured until 22 months after the burn. Additionally, data from the Great Basin indicated deeper soils may increase susceptibility to wind erosion. Historically, the Great Basin and transition zone ecoregions burned more frequently than the Mojave Desert because of fuel abundance and connectivity—and they continue to burn more frequently, particularly after the introduction of invasive grasses (Davies and Nafus, 2013). However, both ecoregions and the transition zone have burned with extensive, high-severity fires when certain weather and fuel conditions are met. For example, the high abundance and productivity of annual grasses and forbs—which are usually produced by above average winter precipitation—combined with early spring and summer warm, dry conditions. Future climate scenarios predict increased temperatures, variable to reduced precipitation, and larger, more extreme wildfires throughout western North America. These predictions suggest that future fires on the NNSS could increase in frequency, intensity, and severity similar to their analog ecosystems throughout the Great Basin and Mojave Desert (Dennison et al., 2014; Abatzoglou andWilliams, 2016; Westerling, 2016).},
doi = {10.2172/1480331},
journal = {},
number = ,
volume = ,
place = {United States},
year = {2018},
month = {10}
}