Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Watersheds dynamics following wildfires: Nonlinear feedbacks and implications on hydrologic responses
- Author(s): Maina, Fadji Zaouna
- Siirila‐Woodburn, Erica R
- et al.
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1002/hyp.13568
© 2019 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. In recent years, wildfires in the western United States have occurred with increasing frequency and scale. Climate change scenarios in California predict prolonged periods of droughts with even greater potential for conditions amenable to wildfires. The Sierra Nevada Mountains provide 70% of water resources in California, yet how wildfires will impact watershed-scale hydrology is highly uncertain. In this work, we assess the impacts of wildfires perturbations on watershed hydrodynamics using a physically based integrated hydrologic model in a high-performance-computing framework. A representative Californian watershed, the Cosumnes River, is used to demonstrate how postwildfire conditions impact the water and energy balance. Results from the high-resolution model show counterintuitive feedbacks that occur following a wildfire and allow us to identify the regions most sensitive to wildfires conditions, as well as the hydrologic processes that are most affected. For example, whereas evapotranspiration generally decreases in the postfire simulations, some regions experience an increase due to changes in surface water run-off patterns in and near burn scars. Postfire conditions also yield greater winter snowpack and subsequently greater summer run-off as well as groundwater storage in the postfire simulations. Comparisons between dry and wet water years show that climate is the main factor controlling the timing at which some hydrologic processes occur (such as snow accumulation) whereas postwildfire changes to other metrics (such as streamflow) show seasonally dependent impacts primarily due to the timing of snowmelt, illustrative of the integrative nature of hydrologic processes across the Sierra Nevada-Central Valley interface.