Degradation of moist soil aggregates by rapid temperature rise under low intensity fire

Albalasmeh, A. A. and Berli, M. and Shafer, D. S. and Ghezzehei, T. A.

Plant and Soil, vol. 362(1-2), pp. 335-344 , 2013.


Soil structure degradation by fire is usually attributed to qualitative and quantitative change of organic and inorganic binding agents, especially in high severity burns (> 300 A degrees C) that last for prolonged periods (> 1 hour). In contrast, controlled burns are typically managed to be low in intensity and severity. Such burns are considered benign to soil structural stability because organic matter and inorganic binding agents (e.g., gypsum) are relatively stable at such low temperatures. Recent observations at a controlled burn site in the eastern Great Basin (Nevada) showed soil aggregate breakdown found in shrub canopies where soil temperatures briefly exceeded 300 A degrees C as well as interspaces between shrubs, where the temperatures were likely lower than beneath shrubs because of less surface biomass. These alterations cannot be explained in terms of thermal alteration of binding agents. This study was designed to test whether pressure created by rapidly vaporized pore water can cause aggregate breakdown. We subjected three different sizes of aggregates (0.25-1, 1-2 and 2-4 mm) of soils derived from the eastern Great Basin burn site as well as from a forest and urban garden in California to rapid and slow (3 A degrees C/min) heating rates. These treatments were conducted at 5 peak temperatures (75, 100, 125, 150 and 175 A degrees C). Post-burn water stability of the aggregates showed that rapid heating rate caused more pronounced degradation of aggregate stability than slow heating. Moreover, the heating-rate dependent structural degradation increased with peak temperature. For the majority of the aggregates, the effect also increased with initial water content. In all the soils tested, there was no preferential loss of organic matter in the rapid-heating treatment that can explain the observed enhanced breakdown of aggregates. Our observations indicate that soil structural degradation under low-intensity fire occurs as a result of mechanical stresses extorted by rapidly escaping steam from soil pores under rapid heating rate.