Discriminating fine sediment sources and the application of sediment tracers in burned catchments: a review


Correspondence to: Hugh G. Smith, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Plymouth University, Plymouth, Devon, PL4 8AA, UK.

E-mail: hugh.smith@plymouth.ac.uk


Wildfire can cause substantial changes to runoff, erosion and downstream sediment delivery processes. In response to these disturbance effects, the main sources of sediment transported within burned catchments may also change. Sediment tracing offers an approach to determine the proportional contributions of fine sediment (typically <63 µm) from burned catchment sources. In this paper, we review the application of various sediment tracers to discriminate fine sediment sources following wildfire. Fallout radionuclides provide the most effective tracers for discriminating hillslope surface and sub-surface (usually channel bank) sources. Previous tracer studies quantifying contributions from these sources after wildfire are based exclusively on radionuclides. The potential for fallout radionuclides to discriminate spatial sources defined according to burned and unburned areas depends on burn-related changes in surface soil concentrations. Tracing of burned and unburned source areas will be problematic where most radionuclides in surface material are bound to ash rather than soil. Geochemical properties of surface soils are probably too susceptible to natural and burn-related variability to consistently discriminate burn-defined spatial sources. Mineral magnetic properties have shown potential for discriminating soil burned at different severities as well as unburned areas. More research is needed to assess the use of soil organic compounds as tracers of burned source areas. Linking fallout radionuclide-based hillslope and channel source discrimination with process measurements and monitoring after fire can provide enhanced insight into fine sediment transfer and related water quality impacts. Adopting such integrated and multi-scale approaches would contribute to improved understanding of hydrological and geomorphological responses to wildfire. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.