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Coarse sediment dynamics in a large glaciated river system: Holocene history and storage dynamics dictate contemporary climate sensitivity

August 31, 2020

The gravel-bedded White River drains a 1279 km2 basin in Washington State, with lowlands sculpted by continental glaciation and headwaters on an actively glaciated stratovolcano. Chronic aggradation along an alluvial fan near the river’s mouth has progressively reduced flood conveyance. In order to better understand how forecasted climate change may influence coarse sediment delivery and aggradation rates in this lowland depositional setting, we assessed the contemporary delivery and routing of coarse sediment through the watershed; this assessment was based on a rich set of topographic, sedimentologic, and hydrologic data from the past century, with a focus on repeat high-resolution topographic surveys from the past decade.

We found that most of the lower river’s contemporary bed-load flux originates from persistent erosion of alluvial deposits in the lower watershed. This erosion is a response to a drop in local base level caused by a major avulsion across the fan in 1906 and then augmented by subsequent dredging. The 1906 avulsion and modern disequilibrium valley profiles reflect landscape conditioning by continental glaciation and a massive mid-Holocene lahar. In the proglacial headwaters, infrequent large sediment pulses have accomplished most of the observed coarse sediment export, with exported material blanketing downstream valley floors; during typical floods, transported bed material is largely sourced from erosion of these valley floor deposits. Throughout the watershed, we observe decadal-scale coarse sediment dynamics strongly related to the filling or emptying of valley-scale sediment storage over 102−104 yr time scales, often in response to major disturbances that either emplace large deposits or influence their redistribution. Paraglacial responses in large watersheds are suggested to be inherently complicated and punctuated as a result of internal landform interactions and stochastic/threshold-dependent events. We argue, in combination, that Holocene disturbance, storage dynamics, and human flow modification make coarse sediment fluxes in the lower White River relatively insensitive to decadal climate variability. Results highlight the degree to which river sensitivity to contemporary disturbance, climatic or otherwise, may be contingent on local and idiosyncratic watershed histories, underscoring the need to unpack those histories while demonstrating the utility of watershed-scale high-resolution topography toward that end.

Publication Year 2020
Title Coarse sediment dynamics in a large glaciated river system: Holocene history and storage dynamics dictate contemporary climate sensitivity
DOI 10.1130/B35530.1
Authors Scott W. Anderson, Kristin Jaeger
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geological Society of America Bulletin
Index ID 70218497
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Washington Water Science Center