International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Hillslope-scale prediction of terrain and forest canopy effects on temperature and near-surface soil moisture deficit

Sean F. Walsh A D , Petter Nyman B , Gary J. Sheridan B , Craig C. Baillie B , Kevin G. Tolhurst C and Thomas J. Duff A

A School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne, Burnley Campus, 500 Yarra Boulevard, Richmond, Vic. 3121, Australia.

B School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne, Parkville Campus, Grattan Street, Parkville, Vic. 3010, Australia.

C School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne, Creswick Campus, Water Street, Creswick, Vic. 3363, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email: seanfwalsh.research@gmail.com

International Journal of Wildland Fire - http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WF16106
Submitted: 9 June 2016  Accepted: 4 January 2017   Published online: 16 February 2017

Abstract

Soil moisture has important effects on fuel availability, but is often assessed using drought indices at coarse spatial resolution, without accounting for the fine-scale spatial effects of terrain and canopy variation on forest floor moisture. In this study, we examined the spatial variability of air temperature, litter temperature and near-surface soil moisture (θ, 0–100 mm) using data from field experiments at 17 sites in south-east Australia, covering a range of topographic aspects and vegetation types, within climates from semiarid to wet montane. Temperatures and θ in mountainous environments were found to vary at much finer spatial scales than typical drought index grid dimensions (several kilometres). Using terrain elevation, local insolation ratio and plant area index, we developed semi-empirical microclimate models for air and litter temperatures, then used modelled temperatures as input into calculations of the Keetch–Byram Drought Index, a widely used index of soil moisture deficit. Drought index results based on predicted litter temperature were found to explain 91% of the spatial variation in near-surface soil moisture at our experimental sites. These results suggest the potential for routine hillslope-scale predictions of forest floor moisture status, which may be useful in the management of fire, particularly prescribed burning, in complex terrain.

Additional keywords: complex terrain, downscaling, drought index, KBDI, microclimate.


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