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Controls on debris‐flow initiation on burned and unburned hillslopes during an exceptional rainstorm in southern New Mexico, USA

December 2, 2019

AbstractUsing observations from 688 debris flows, we analyse the hydrologic and landscape characteristics that influenced debris‐flow initiation mechanisms and locations in a watershed that had been partially burned by the 2012 Whitewater‐Baldy Complex Fire in the Gila Mountains, southern New Mexico. Debris flows can initiate due to different processes. Slopes can fail as discrete landslides and then become fluidized and move downstream as debris flows (landslide initiated) or progressive bulking of sediment from a distributed area can become channelized and concentrated as it moves downslope (runoff generated). In this study, we have an unusual opportunity to investigate both types of debris‐flow initiation mechanisms in our observations of debris flows, triggered by an exceptional rainstorm in the autumn of 2013. Additionally, we compare our observations with those of a dataset of 1138 debris flows in the Colorado Front Range, triggered during the same weather system. We found that runoff‐generated debris flows dominated in burn areas, and runoff required to start these flows could be well characterized by the Shields stress. Landslide‐initiated debris flows were dominant in unburned areas. Debris‐flow densities were tied to total rainfall and precipitation intensities. Like the observations in the Colorado Front Range, debris‐flow initiation locations were found primarily in areas of relatively sparse vegetation on south‐facing slopes between 25 and 40°, and with upslope contributing areas less than 1000 m2. In terms of preferential locations for debris‐flow initiations, 2013 vegetation coverage, approximated by Green–Red Vegetation Index metrics, proved to be more influential than the 2012 burn‐severity designation. The uniformity of observations between our study area and those in the Colorado Front Range indicate that the underlying hydrologic and landscape patterns of the debris‐flow initiation locations documented in these studies could be applicable to the wider southwest and Rocky Mountain regions.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2020
Title Controls on debris‐flow initiation on burned and unburned hillslopes during an exceptional rainstorm in southern New Mexico, USA
DOI 10.1002/esp.4761
Authors Anne C. Tillery, Francis K. Rengers
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Earth Surface Processes and Landforms
Index ID 70218301
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center; New Mexico Water Science Center