2020 is the year of wildfire records. California experienced its three largest fires early in its fire season. The Pantanal, the largest wetland on the planet, burned over 20% of its surface. More than 18 million hectares of forest and bushland burned during the 2019–2020 fire season in Australia, killing 33 people, destroying nearly 2500 homes, and endangering many endemic species. The direct cost of damages is being counted in dozens of billion dollars, but the indirect costs on water-related ecosystem services and benefits could be equally expensive, with impacts lasting for decades. In Australia, the extreme precipitation (“200 mm day −1 in several location”) that interrupted the catastrophic wildfire season triggered a series of watershed effects from headwaters to areas downstream. The increased runoff and erosion from burned areas disrupted water supplies in several locations. These post-fire watershed hazards via source water contamination, flash floods, and mudslides can represent substantial, systemic long-term risks to drinking water production, aquatic life, and socio-economic activity. Scenarios similar to the recent event in Australia are now predicted to unfold in the Western USA. This is a new reality that societies will have to live with as uncharted fire activity, water crises, and widespread human footprint collide all-around of the world. Therefore, we advocate for a more proactive approach to wildfire-watershed risk governance in an effort to advance and protect water security. We also argue that there is no easy solution to reducing this risk and that investments in both green (i.e., natural) and grey (i.e., built) infrastructure will be necessary. Further, we propose strategies to combine modern data analytics with existing tools for use by water and land managers worldwide to leverage several decades worth of data and knowledge on post-fire hydrology.
Hydrological processes in mountain headwater basins are changing as climate and vegetation change. Interactions between hydrological processes and subalpine forest ecological function are important to mountain water supplies due to their control on evapotranspiration (ET). Improved understanding of the sensitivity of these interactions to seasonal and interannual changes in snowmelt and summer rainfall is needed as these interactions can impact forest growth, succession, health, and susceptibility to wildfire. To better understand this sensitivity, this research examined ET for a sub-alpine forest in the Canadian Rockies over two contrasting growing seasons and quantified the contribution of transpiration (T) from the younger tree population to overall stand ET. The younger population was focused on to permit examination of trees that have grown under the effect of recent climate change and will contribute to treeline migration, and subalpine forest densification and succession. Research sites were located at Fortress Mountain Research Basin, Kananaskis, Alberta, where the subalpine forest examined is composed of Abies lasiocarpa (Subalpine fir) and Picea engelmannii (Engelmann spruce). Seasonal changes in water availability from snowmelt, precipitation, soil moisture reserves yielded stark differences in T and ET between 2016 and 2017. ET was higher in the drier year (2017), which had late snowmelt and lower summer rainfall than in the wetter year (2016) that had lower snowmelt and a rainy summer, highlighting the importance of spring snowmelt recharge of soil moisture. However, stand T of the younger trees (73% of forest population) was greater (64 mm) in 2016 (275 mm summer rainfall) than 2017 (39 mm T, 147 mm summer rainfall), and appears to be sensitive to soil moisture decreases in fall, which are largely a function of summer period rainfall. Relationships between subalpine forest water use and different growing season and antecedent (snowmelt period) hydrological conditions clarify the interactions between forest water use and alpine hydrology, which can lead to better anticipation of the hydrological response of subalpine forest-dominated basins to climate variability and change.
Global Institute for Water Security, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada School of Geosciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK Dept of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada Landcare Research, Lincoln, New Zealand Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Dübendorf, Switzerland Centre for Hydrology, University of Saskatchewan, Canmore, Alberta, Canada School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK Hetch Hetchy Power, San Francisco, California, USA Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Nicolas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA GNS Science, Lower Hutt, New Zealand Department of Civil Engineering, Univeristy of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada Disaster Prevention Research Institute, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland Dept of Biological and Ecological Engineering, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, USA Faculty of Environment & Natural Resources, University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany Faculty of Engineering, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK