Burned and unburned peat water repellency: Implications for peatland evaporation following wildfire

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • R. E. Humphrey
  • J. E. Smith
  • M. C. Lukenbach
  • K. J. Devito
  • R. M. Petrone
  • J. M. Waddington

Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • McMaster University
  • University of Alberta
  • School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham
  • McMaster Centre for Climate Change and School of Geography and Earth Sciences; McMaster University; Hamilton; Ontario; Canada
  • Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta
  • Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo


Water repellency alters soil hydrology after periods of wildfire, potentially modifying the ecosystem recovery to such disturbance. Despite this potential importance, the extent and severity of water repellency within burned peatlands and its importance in regulating peatland recovery to wildfire disturbance remains poorly understood. We characterised the water repellency of peat in a burned (one year post-fire) and unburned peatland in the Western Boreal Plain utilising the water drop penetration time and ethanol droplet molarity tests. Burned Sphagnum moss and feather moss sites had a more severe degree of water repellency than unburned sites, with differences being more pronounced between burned and unburned feather moss sites. Burned feather moss exhibited the most extreme water repellency, followed by unburned feather moss, and burned Sphagnum. The severity of water repellency varied with depth through the near surface of the moss/peat profile. This was most evident within the burned feathermoss where more extreme water repellency was observed at the near-surface compared to the surface, with the most extreme water repellency found at 1 and 5. cm depths. Unburned Sphagnum was completely hydrophilic at all depths. We suggest that the extreme water repellency in near-surface feather moss peat acts as a barrier that impedes the supply of water to the surface that replaces that lost via evaporation. This leads to drying of the near-surface vadose zone within feather moss areas and a concomitantly large decrease in peatland evaporation within feather moss dominated peatlands. This negative feedback mechanism likely enhances the resilience of such peatland to wildfire disturbance, maintaining a high water table position, thereby limiting peat decomposition. In comparison, such a feedback is not observed strongly within Sphagnum, leaving Sphagnum dominated peatlands potentially vulnerable to low water table positions post disturbance.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)335-341
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Publication statusPublished - 26 May 2014


  • Evaporation, Feather moss, Hydrophobicity, Sphagnum, Water repellency, Wildfire

ASJC Scopus subject areas