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Debris flows in glaciated catchments: a case study on Mount Rainier, Washington

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Author(s): Nicholas T. Legg

Document Type: M.S. Thesis
Publisher: Oregon State University
Published Year: 2013
Pages: 162
DOI Identifier:
ISBN Identifier:
Keywords: geomorphology debris flow glacier dendrochronology lichenometry Cascade Range valley evolution natural hazards climate change

Debris flows, which occur in mountain settings worldwide, have been particularly damaging in the glaciated basins flanking the stratovolcanoes in the Cascade Range of the northwestern United States. This thesis contains two manuscripts that respectively investigate the (1) initiation processes of debris flows in these glaciated catchments, and (2) debris flow occurrence and its effect on valley bottoms over the last thousand years.

In a 2006 storm, seven debris flows initiated from proglacial gullies of separate basins on the flanks of Mount Rainier. Gully heads at glacier termini and distributed collapse of gully walls imply that clear water was transformed to debris flow through progressive addition of sediment along gully lengths. In the first study, we analyze gully changes, reconstruct runoff conditions, and assess spatial distributions of debris flows to infer the processes and conditions necessary for debris flow initiation in glaciated catchments. Gully measurements suggest that sediment bulking requires steep gradients, abundant unstable material, and sufficient gully length. Reconstruction of runoff generated during the storm suggests that glaciers are important for generating the runoff necessary for debris flow initiation, particularly because infiltration capacities on glacial till covered surfaces well exceed measured rainfall rates. Runoff generation from glaciers and abundant loose debris at their termini explain why all debris flows in the storm initiated from proglacial areas. Proglacial areas that produced debris flows have steeper drainage networks with significantly higher elevations and lower drainage areas, suggesting that debris flows are associated with high elevation glaciers with relatively steep proglacial areas. This correlation reflects positive slope-elevation trends for the Mount Rainier volcano. An indirect effect of glacier change is thus the change in the distribution of ice-free slopes, which
influence a basin's debris flow potential. These findings have implications for projections of debris flow activity in basins experiencing glacier change.

The second study uses a variety of dating techniques to reconstruct a chronology of debris flows in the Kautz Creek valley on the southwest flank of Mount Rainier (Washington). Dendrochronologic dating of growth disturbances combined with lichenometric techniques constrained five debris flow ages from 1712 to 1915 AD. We also estimated ages of three debris flows ranging in age from ca. 970 to 1661. Run-out distances served as a proxy for debris flow magnitude, and indicate that at least 11, 2, and 1 debris flow(s) have traveled at least 1, 3, and 5 km from the valley head, respectively since ca. 1650. Valley form reflects the frequency-magnitude relationship indicated by the chronology. In the upper, relatively steep valley, discrete debris flow snouts and secondary channels are abundant, suggesting a process of debris flow conveyance, channel plugging, and channel avulsion. The lower valley is characterized by relatively smooth surfaces, an absence of bouldery debris flow snouts, few secondary channels, and relatively old surface ages inferred from the presence of tephra layers. We infer that the lower valley is deposited on by relatively infrequent, large magnitude, low-yield strength debris flows like an event in 1947, which deposited wide, tabular lobes of debris outside of the main channel. Debris flows during the Little Ice Age (LIA) predominantly traveled no further than the upper valley. Stratigraphic evidence suggests that the main Kautz Creek channel was filled during the LIA, enhancing debris flow deposition on the valley surface and perhaps reducing run-out lengths. Diminished areas and gradients in front of glaciers during the LIA also likely contributed to decreased run-out lengths. These findings suggest that changes in debris flow source and depositional zones resulting from temperature and glacier cycles influence the magnitude and run-out distances of debris flows, and the dynamics of deposition in valley bottoms.

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In Text Citation:
Legg (2013) or (Legg, 2013)

References Citation:
Legg, N.T., 2013, Debris flows in glaciated catchments: a case study on Mount Rainier, Washington: M.S. Thesis, Oregon State University, 162 p..