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Major fluvial erosion and a 500-Mt sediment pulse triggered by lava-dam failure, Río Coca, Ecuador

January 4, 2024

The failure of a 144-m-high lava-dam waterfall on the Río Coca, Ecuador, in February 2020 initiated a catastrophic watershed reset—regressive erosion upstream and a massive sediment pulse downstream—as the river evolves towards a new equilibrium grade. The evolution of this river corridor after a sudden base-level fall embodies the “complex response” concepts long understood through laboratory experiments, numerical modelling and smaller-scale field studies, but that have not been observed in the field before on this scale. This paper presents geomorphic and geotechnical data to characterize the evolution of the Río Coca since 2020. In the three years after the lava-dam failure, the erosion front migrated almost 13 km upstream along the mainstem river and triggered secondary headcuts that began migrating up tributaries. Erosion of the mainstem and tributary valleys generated a sediment pulse estimated to be 277 million m3 and ~500 million tonnes (Mt) over three years, depositing sediment tens of meters thick over tens of kilometres downstream from the former waterfall. This sediment pulse is one of the largest in modern times, comparable to the annual sediment load of a major continent-draining river but with orders-of-magnitude greater sediment yield. Geomorphic adjustment of the Río Coca represents a highly unusual natural disaster threatening life, property, water quality, the regional economy, major infrastructure and energy security. However, this event also provides a rare opportunity to learn how a large autogenic watershed disturbance and recovery evolve, with important lessons for interpreting the sedimentary record of volcanic landscapes.

Publication Year 2024
Title Major fluvial erosion and a 500-Mt sediment pulse triggered by lava-dam failure, Río Coca, Ecuador
DOI 10.1002/esp.5751
Authors Pedro D. Barrera Crespo, Pablo Espinoza Giron, Renan Bedoya, Stanford Gibson, Amy E. East, Eddy J. Langendoen, Paul M Boyd
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Earth Surface Processes and Landforms
Index ID 70252027
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center