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Effects of fire on the hydrology, biogeochemistry, and ecology of peatland river systems

Brown, L.E., Holden, J., Palmer, S.M., Johnston, K., Ramchunder, S.J. and Grayson, R. (2015) Effects of fire on the hydrology, biogeochemistry, and ecology of peatland river systems. Freshwater Science, 34 (4). pp. 1406-1425.

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Peatlands are found around the world and cover similar to 3.4% of the Earth's surface. In the UK, peatlands cover 17.2% or similar to 1.58 Mha of the land surface and occur mainly in upland areas covering the headwaters of most major British rivers. However, large areas are now subject to prescribed vegetation burning despite policy guidance that recommends a strong presumption against burning on deep blanket peat. Wildfires occur sporadically but are forecast to increase in frequency in the future. This paper provides a synthesis of current knowledge about how UK peatland-dominated river catchments respond to fires caused by prescribed vegetation burning and uncontrolled wildfire. We provide insight into the effects of fire on the hydrology, biogeochemistry, and biota of peatland river ecosystems, and the peatland-soil-driven controls on these effects at the catchment scale. Burning increases the depth to water table and water-table variability, although some small-scale studies indicate shallower water table in some places. More work is needed on fire effects on peatland river flow, but recent results suggest a complex response with smaller flow peaks for burned systems associated with most rainfall events, but enhanced peaks compared to unburned systems for the top quintile of rainfall events with the largest total rain. Evidence from biogeochemical studies suggests that fire leads to increased dissolved organic C concentrations in rivers. River biota responses primarily include significant reductions in the density of grazing mayflies but increases among detritivores including Chironomidae and Baetis mayflies. We provide a conceptual synthesis that links the main responses of terrestrial and aquatic systems to fire, and we summarize some major research gaps that should be prioritized to inform future policy around peatland management.

Publication Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Veterinary and Life Sciences
Publisher: Society of Freshwater Science
Copyright: © 2015 by The Society for Freshwater Science.
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