Flagstaff Study: Wildfire May Double Erosion in a Quarter of Western Watersheds

Dec 8, 2015

A Flagstaff-led study predicts future wildfires will dramatically increase soil erosion in the American West.

A Montana wildfire
Credit John McColgan, USDA

The study predicted two-thirds of watersheds will see at least a 10 percent increase in erosion by 2050. A quarter of watersheds will see a 100 percent increase. 

Scientists expect climate change to bring larger and more frequent wildfires to the western U.S. This study is the first to compare those predictions with models for soil erosion.

Joel Sankey, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, led the research. “We know that one of the things that happens after wildfires is there can be a lot of erosion, and a lot of that soil can accumulate in downstream streams, lakes, reservoirs,” Sankey says. “That can have all sorts of impacts on the ecosystem and the watersheds themselves.” 

The research team plans to study those impacts in vulnerable communities. Sankey says high-elevation forested areas like Flagstaff are “hot spots” for fire-related erosion.

The research will be presented next week at the American Geophysical Union meeting.