ABSTRACT: This study tested the hypothesis that stable C and N isotope values in surface soil and litter would be increased by fire due to volatilization of lighter isotopes. The hypothesis was tested by: (1) performing experimental laboratory burns of organic and mineral soil materials from a watershed at combinations of temperature ranging 100 to 600 degrees C and duration ranging from 1 to 60 min; (2) testing field samples of upland soils before, shortly after, and 1 yr following a wildfire in the same watershed; and (3) testing field soil samples from a down-gradient ash/sediment depositional area in a riparian zone following a runoff event after the wildfire. Muffle furnace results indicated the most effective temperature range for using stable isotopes for tracing fire impacts is 200 to 400 degrees C because lower burn temperatures may not produce strong isotopic shifts, and at temperatures>or=600 degrees C, N and C content of residual material is too low. Analyses of field soil samples were inconclusive: there was a slightly significant effect of the wildfire on delta15N values in upland watershed analyses 1 yr postburn, while riparian zone analyses results indicated that delta13C values significantly decreased approximately 0.71 per thousand over a 9 mo post-fire period (p=0.015), and ash/sediment layer delta13C values were approximately 0.65 per thousand higher than those in the A horizon. The lack of field confirmation may have been due to overall wildfire burn temperatures being <200 degrees C and/or microbial recovery and vegetative growth in the field. Thus, the muffle furnace experiment supported the hypothesis, but it is as yet unconfirmed by actual wildfire field data.
Journal of Environmental Quality 03/2007; 36(1):91-100. · 2.32 Impact Factor