Post-wildfire Wind Erosion In and Around the Idaho National Laboratory Site. (2011)

Post-wildfire Wind Erosion In and Around the Idaho National Laboratory Site. (2011)


Investigators and Affiliations

  • Matthew J. Germino, Ph.D., Research Ecologist, United States Geological Survey, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, Boise Idaho
  • Nancy F. Glenn, Ph.D., Professor, Geosciences Department, Idaho State University, Boise, Idaho



  • Joel Sankey, Ph.D., Mendenhall Fellow-Research Physical Scientist, United States Geological Survey Southwest Geographic Science Center and USA-National Phenology Network, Tuscon, Arizona
  • Amber N. Hoover, M.S., Research Technician, Biological Sciences Department, Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho
  • Jeremy P. Shive, GIS/Remote Sensing Analyst, Environmental Surveillance, Education, and Research Program, S.M. Stoller Corporation, Idaho Falls, Idaho
  • Mike Griffel, student, Idaho State University, Idaho Falls, Idaho
  • Natalie Wagenbrenner, Engineer, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Moscow, Idaho
  • Brian Lamb, Washington State University, Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, Pullman, Washington
  • Peter Robichaud, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Moscow, Idaho

Funding Sources:

  • U.S. Department of Defense
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • US Geological Survey
  • USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station

Background: Wind erosion following large wildfires on and around the INL Site is a recurrent threat to human health and safety, DOE operations and trafficability, and ecological and hydrological condition of the INL Site and down-wind landscapes. Causes and consequences of wind erosion are mainly known from warm deserts (e.g. Southwest US), dunefields, and croplands, and some but not all findings are transferable to the cold desert environments such as where the INL Site lies.


This is a large and multifaceted research program with the overall goal being to determine and describe wildland fire effects on wind erosion in rangelands on and around the INL Site. The specific objectives include the following:

  • To quantify the role of wind erosion and dust emissions in post-fire environments as well as the associated potential impacts on site fertility, invasibility by exotic grasses, micro-scale geomorphology, and regional air quality
  • To determine if the aerodynamic parameters friction velocity, roughness length, and displacement height change through time following wildland fire, and to identify how these parameters relate to vegetation recovery after fire
  • To determine the effects of repeat burning on levels of wind erosion, for sites that reburn a few years following prior fires
  • To determine how surface-soil moisture variations relate to (i.e., control) erodibility over the months when vegetation has yet to recover on the site
  • To link monitoring of near-soil saltation activity to dust emission and model regional dust plumes culminating from INL fires, using a combination of ground-level, air quality, and remotely sensed approaches.

Accomplishments through 2011:

In 2011, we used a combination of ground-based and remotely sensed approaches towards our objects on the 2010 Jefferson Fire and 2010 Middle Butte Fire. The Jefferson Fire burned ~100,000 acres, and we ended a year-long instrumentation campaign located on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands due east of INL Site in August, and in 2011 we began in intensive remote sensing assessment of surficial and vegetation changes across the entire burn site, including field validation. The Middle Butte Fire burned over portions of the 2007 Twin Buttes fire that we had previously evaluated. Our original saltation bridges were still in place, enabling an estimate of repeat burning effects on soil loss.

Jefferson Fire, Preliminary Results: Dust plumes in satellite imagery combined with our measurements of airborne particulate matter and dispersion modeling and show that the 2010 Jefferson Fire caused substantial impacts to air quality in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Erosion led to losses of several centimeters of soil, resulting in a less-fertile landscape dominated by hard surface crust that is less capable of absorbing summer precipitation. Fluxes of PM10 and saltation near ground level in September 2010 are about as large, or are larger than other values reported for eroding rangeland or even croplands.

We have adapted energy balance models to create estimates of surface soil moisture (top mm or so of soil) and are relating this to erodibility in the >10 months that the Jefferson Fire site was without vegetation following fire. Surface soil moisture appears highly uncoupled from the conventional surrogate measures of water content commonly used as proxies, such as relative humidity or bulk soil water. On the Jefferson Fire site, areas dominated by native perennials (particularly sagebrush) have since had a large increase in exotic herbs, such as halogeton. We made detailed measurements of microsite elevation variations relative to residual shrub stumps and have evaluated the variation to the extent that we will propose a method of reconstructing historic soil loss from burn sites.

Middle Butte Fire, Preliminary Results: Horizontal fluxes determined over 12 months from sediment traps were many times greater on the portions of this fire that had not burned previously (at least for many decades) compared to the portions that had burned several years prior in the Twin Buttes Fire. Similarly, soil surface deflation determined from saltation bridges was 1-2 cm greater on the landscape that had not burned previously compared to that reburned (for the latter, we detected no net change in soil surface elevation). These findings will be important for predicting impacts of recurrent burning and for predictive modeling of future erosion.

Twin Buttes and Associated Fires: In 2011, we continued to analyze data and submit manuscripts for publication on our previous year’s efforts, and the following findings are published now: Using a portable wind-tunnel, we demonstrated the direct effect of burning on erodibility and dust supply, and found that sagebrush microsites have a relatively high capacity to produce erodible soils after fires (Sankey et al. 2011, 2012). While this effect would seem to erode the heterogeneity of soils (between islands of fertility under native perennials and barren plant interspaces), we instead found that sites that appeared to be in good ecological condition prior burning (Twin Butte, Moonshiner, and Hwy 20 fires) retained much of their heterogeneity and associated plant diversity (Hoover and Germino 2012, Sankey et al. in press). We documented appreciable transfer of carbon and nitrogen in INL Site fires occurring prior to 2010 (Twin Butte Fire), with large fractions of organic matter being transported with soil in wind (Hasselquist et al.2011, Sankey et al. in press B).

Plans for Continuation: In 2012, we do not plan to collect more field data unless new fire and erosion conditions arise. Our efforts are focused on using existing data for modeling, analysis, and publication efforts in 2012.

Publications, Theses, Reports:

  • Sankey J, Germino MJ, Sankey T, Hoover A (In Press, available online) Fire effects on the spatial patterning of soil properties in sagebrush steppe, USA: Meta-analysis. International Journal of Wildland Fire.
  • Sankey J, Germino MJ, Glenn N, Benner S (In Press B, available online) Bioavailable nutrients transported by wind in an eroding cold desert. Aeolian Research.
  • Hasselquist N, Germino MJ, Sankey J, Glenn N, Ingram J. 2011. High potential for nutrient redistribution in aeolian sediment fluxes following wildfire in sagebrush steppe. Biogeosciences 8: 3649-3659.
  • Sankey J, Germino MJ, Glenn NJ. 2012. Dust supply varies with sagebrush microsites and time since burning in experimental erosion events. Journal of Geophysical Research- Biogeosciences doi:10.1029/2011JG001724. Brittonia. (Accepted Dec. 2012).
  • Sankey J, Eitel J, Glenn N, Germino MJ, Vierling L. 2011. Quantifying relationships of burning, roughness, and potential dust emission with laser altimetry of soil surfaces at submeter scales. Geomorphology doi:10.1016/j.geomorph.2011.08.016.
  • Hoover A, Germino MJ. 2012. Post-fire, Resource-Island Effects on Bromus tectorum and Pseudoroegneria spicata: Evidence From a Common-Garden Study. Rangeland Ecology and Management doi: 10.2111/REM-D-11-00026.1.

  • Germino MJ, Sankey JB, Glenn NF. Post-fire wind erosion: causes, consequences, and implications. Great Basin Consortium First Annual Meeting, Nov 2011, Reno, NV.
  • Germino MJ, Sankey JB, Glenn NF. Surface conditions affecting post-fire wind erosion in cold desert. Association for Fire Ecology Annual Meeting, Nov 2011, Snowbird, UT.
  • Sankey JB, Germino MJ, Glenn NF, Ravi S. Quantifying biogeomorphic response to fire at micro-biome scales. Association for Fire Ecology Annual Meeting, Nov 2011, Snowbird, UT
  • Wagenbrenner, N, Fultz R, Lamb B, Germino MJ. Measuring and modeling dust emissions from soils burned by wildfire. Association for Fire Ecology Annual Meeting, Nov 2011, Snowbird, UT.
  • Griffel M, Germino MJ, Glenn NF. Remote sensing of post-fire conditions in sage-steppe. Association for Fire Ecology Annual Meeting, Nov 2011, Snowbird UT.
  • Wagenbrenner N, Germino MJ, Lamb BK, Foltz RB, Robichaud PR. Wind erosion of soils burned by wildfire. International Symposium on Erosion and Landscape Evolution, Sep 2011, Anchorage, AK.
  • Wagenbrenner N, Lamb B, Robichaud P, Foltz R, Germino MJ. Wind erosion in a post-wildfire environment. Special meeting on Fire Effects on Soil Properties, Mar 2011, Guimares, Portugal.