The impact of fire on the geochemistry of speleothem-forming drip water in a sub-alpine cave


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Science of the Total Environment

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Fire dramatically modifies the surface environment by combusting vegetation and changing soil properties. Despite this well-documented impact on the surface environment, there has been limited research into the impact of fire events on karst, caves and speleothems. Here we report the first experiment designed to investigate the short-term impacts of a prescribed fire on speleothem-forming cave drip water geochemistry. Before and after the fire, water was collected on a bi-monthly basis from 18 drip sites in South Glory Cave, New South Wales, Australia. Two months post-fire, there was an increase in B, Si, Na, Fe and Pb concentrations at all drip sites. We conclude that this response is most likely due to the transport of soluble ash-derived elements from the surface to the cave drip water below. A significant deviation in stable water isotopic composition from the local meteoric water line was also observed at six of the sites. We hypothesise that this was due to partial evaporation of soil water resulting in isotopic enrichment of drip waters. Our results demonstrate that even low-severity prescribed fires can have an impact on speleothem-forming cave drip water geochemistry. These findings are significant because firstly, fires need to be considered when interpreting past climate from speleothem δ18O isotope and trace element records, particularly in fire prone regions such as Australia, North America, south west Europe, Russia and China. Secondly, it supports research that demonstrates speleothems could be potential proxy records for past fires.

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