Articles | Volume 16, issue 5
Research article
15 May 2012
Research article |  | 15 May 2012

Soil-water dynamics and unsaturated storage during snowmelt following wildfire

B. A. Ebel, E. S. Hinckley, and D. A. Martin

Abstract. Many forested watersheds with a substantial fraction of precipitation delivered as snow have the potential for landscape disturbance by wildfire. Little is known about the immediate effects of wildfire on snowmelt and near-surface hydrologic responses, including soil-water storage. Montane systems at the rain-snow transition have soil-water dynamics that are further complicated during the snowmelt period by strong aspect controls on snowmelt and soil thawing. Here we present data from field measurements of snow hydrology and subsurface hydrologic and temperature responses during the first winter and spring after the September 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire in Colorado, USA. Our observations of soil-water content and soil temperature show sharp contrasts in hydrologic and thermal conditions between north- and south-facing slopes. South-facing burned soils were ∼1–2 °C warmer on average than north-facing burned soils and ∼1.5 °C warmer than south-facing unburned soils, which affected soil thawing during the snowmelt period. Soil-water dynamics also differed by aspect: in response to soil thawing, soil-water content increased approximately one month earlier on south-facing burned slopes than on north-facing burned slopes. While aspect and wildfire affect soil-water dynamics during snowmelt, soil-water storage at the end of the snowmelt period reached the value at field capacity for each plot, suggesting that post-snowmelt unsaturated storage was not substantially influenced by aspect in wildfire-affected areas. Our data and analysis indicate that the amount of snowmelt-driven groundwater recharge may be larger in wildfire-impacted areas, especially on south-facing slopes, because of earlier soil thaw and longer durations of soil-water contents above field capacity in those areas.