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Forest Structure Affects Soil Mercury Losses in the Presence and Absence of Wildfire

Homann, Peter S., Darbyshire, Robyn L., Bormann, Bernard T., Morrissette, Brett A.
Environmental Science & Technology 2015 v.49 no.21 pp. 12714-12722
Pseudotsuga menziesii, atmospheric deposition, canopy, clearcutting, emissions, fire severity, forest soils, forests, humans, mercury, tree mortality, wildfires, wood, Oregon
Soil is an important, dynamic component of regional and global mercury (Hg) cycles. This study evaluated how changes in forest soil Hg masses caused by atmospheric deposition and wildfire are affected by forest structure. Pre and postfire soil Hg measurements were made over two decades on replicate experimental units of three prefire forest structures (mature unthinned, mature thinned, clear-cut) in Douglas-fir dominated forest of southwestern Oregon. In the absence of wildfire, O-horizon Hg decreased by 60% during the 14 years after clearcutting, possibly the result of decreased atmospheric deposition due to the smaller-stature vegetative canopy; in contrast, no change was observed in mature unthinned and thinned forest. Wildfire decreased O-horizon Hg by >88% across all forest structures and decreased mineral-soil (0 to 66 mm depth) Hg by 50% in thinned forest and clear-cut. The wildfire-associated soil Hg loss was positively related to the amount of surface fine wood that burned during the fire, the proportion of area that burned at >700 °C, fire severity as indicated by tree mortality, and soil C loss. Loss of soil Hg due to the 200 000 ha wildfire was more than four times the annual atmospheric Hg emissions from human activities in Oregon.