Transport of Biologically Important Nutrients by Wind in an Eroding Cold Desert

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Wind erosion following fire is an important landscape process that can result in the redistribution of ecologically important soil resources. In this study we evaluated the potential for a fire patch in a desert shrubland to serve as a source of biologically important nutrients to the adjacent, downwind, unburned ecosystem. We analyzed nutrient concentrations (P, K, Ca, Mg, Cu, Fe, Mn, Al) in wind-transported sediments, and soils from burned and adjacent unburned surfaces, collected during the first to second growing seasons after a wildfire that burned in 2007 in Idaho, USA in sagebrush steppe; a type of cold desert shrubland. We also evaluated the timing of potential wind erosion events and weather conditions that might have contributed to nutrient availability in downwind shrubland. Findings indicated that post-fire wind erosion resulted in an important, but transient, addition of nutrients on the downwind shrubland. Aeolian sediments from the burned area were enriched relative to both the up- and down-wind soil and indicated the potential for a fertilization effect through the deposition of the nutrient-enriched sediment during the first, but not second, summer after wildfire. Weather conditions that could have produced nutrient transport events might have provided increased soil moisture necessary to make nutrients accessible for plants in the desert environment. Wind transport of nutrients following fire is likely important in the sagebrush steppe as it could contribute to pulses of resource availability that might, for example, affect plant species differently depending on their phenology, and nutrient- and water-use requirements.