DOI: 10.1111/gcb.17061 ISSN: 1354-1013

Life after a fiery death: Fire and plant biomass loading affect dissolved organic matter in experimental ponds

Cody J. Spiegel, Natalie Mladenov, Christopher B. Wall, Kelly Hollman, Cindy H. Tran, Celia C. Symons, Jonathan B. Shurin
  • General Environmental Science
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Global and Planetary Change


Drier and hotter conditions linked with anthropogenic climate change can increase wildfire frequency and severity, influencing terrestrial and aquatic carbon cycles at broad spatial and temporal scales. The impacts of wildfire are complex and dependent on several factors that may increase terrestrial deposition and the influx of dissolved organic matter (DOM) from plants into nearby aquatic systems, resulting in the darkening of water color. We tested the effects of plant biomass quantity and its interaction with fire (burned vs. unburned plant biomass) on dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentration and degradation (biological vs. photochemical) and DOM composition in 400 L freshwater ponds using a gradient experimental design. DOC concentration increased nonlinearly with plant biomass loading in both treatments, with overall higher concentrations (>56 mg/L) in the unburned treatment shortly after plant addition. We also observed nonlinear trends in fluorescence and UV‐visible absorbance spectroscopic indices as a function of fire treatment and plant biomass, such as greater humification and specific UV absorbance at 254 nm (a proxy for aromatic DOM) over time. DOM humification occurred gradually over time with less humification in the burned treatment compared to the unburned treatment. Both burned and unburned biomass released noncolored, low molecular weight carbon compounds that were rapidly consumed by microbes. DOC decomposition exhibited a unimodal relationship with plant biomass, with microbes contributing more to DOC loss than photodegradation at intermediate biomass levels (100–300 g). Our findings demonstrate that the quantity of plant biomass leads to nonlinear responses in the dynamics and composition of DOM in experimental ponds that are altered by fire, indicating how disturbances interactively affect DOM processing and its role in aquatic environments.

More from our Archive