Quantifying Post-Fire Aeolian Sediment Transport Using Rare Earth Element Tracers

TitleQuantifying Post-Fire Aeolian Sediment Transport Using Rare Earth Element Tracers
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsDukes D, Gonzales HB, Ravi S, Grandstaff DE, Van Pelt S, Li J, Wang G, Sankey JB
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Accession NumberSEV.771

Grasslands, which provide fundamental ecosystem services in many arid and semi-arid regions of the world, are undergoing rapid increases in fire activity and are highly susceptible to post-fire accelerated soil erosion by wind. A quantitative assessment of physical processes that integrates fire-wind erosion feedbacks is therefore needed relative to vegetation change, soil biogeochemical cycling, air quality, and landscape evolution. We investigated the applicability of a novel tracer technique – the use of multiple rare earth elements (REE) - to quantify soil transport by wind and to identify sources and sinks of wind-blown sediments in both a burned and unburned shrub-grass transition zone in the Chihuahuan Desert, NM, USA. Results indicate that the horizontal mass flux of wind-borne sediment increased approximately threefold following the fire. The REE-tracer analysis of wind-borne sediments show that the source of the horizontal mass flux in the unburned site was derived from bare microsites (88.5%), while in the burned site it was primarily sourced from shrub (42.3%) and bare (39.1%) microsites. Vegetated microsites which were predominantly sinks of aeolian sediments in the unburned areas, became sediment sources following the fire. The burned areas showed a spatial homogenization of sediment tracers, highlighting a potential negative feedback on landscape heterogeneity induced by shrub encroachment into grasslands. Though fires are known to increase aeolian sediment transport, accompanying changes in the sources and sinks of wind-borne sediments may influence biogeochemical cycling and land degradation dynamics. Furthermore, our experiment demonstrated that REEs can be used as reliable tracers for field-scale aeolian studies.