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Fluviomorphic trajectories for dryland ephemeral stream channels following extreme flash floods

May 3, 2024

Ephemeral alluvial streams pose globally significant flood hazards to human habitation in drylands, but sparse data for these regions limit understanding of the character and impacts of extreme flooding. In this study, we document decadal changes in dryland ephemeral channel patterns at two sites in the lower Colorado River Basin (southwestern United States) that were ravaged by extraordinary flash floods in the 1970s: Bronco Creek, Arizona (1971), and Eldorado Canyon, Nevada (1974). We refer to these two floods as ‘fluviomorphic erasure events’, because they produced blank slates for the channels that were gradually moulded by more frequent but much smaller flood events. We studied georectified aerial photos that span ~60 years at each site to show that both study sites recovered to their pre-flood condition after ~25 years. We employ channel network metrics: stream-link area (SLA), geometric braiding index and junction-node density. Each metric decreased during the short-duration extreme flood erasure events. Subsequently, a fluviomorphic trajectory at a decadal tempo returned the channels to pre-flood values. The SLA decreased at rates of 3.6%–4.1% per year in the decade following the floods. The extreme flood events decreased the pre-flood geometric braiding index at the two sites by 56%–68%, and it took 15–24 years for this index to recover to pre-flood values. In contrast, it took 30–35 years for the channels to recover to a uniform pre-flood channel form, as indicated by the spatial distribution of bars and junction nodes. Our results document baseline examples of ephemeral stream channel evolution trajectories, as future climatic change will likely accelerate increases in the magnitudes and frequencies of extreme floods and geomorphic erasure events.

Publication Year 2024
Title Fluviomorphic trajectories for dryland ephemeral stream channels following extreme flash floods
DOI 10.1002/esp.5847
Authors Eliisa Lotsari, Kyle House, Petteri Alho, Victor R. Baker
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Earth Surface Processes and Landforms
Index ID 70254070
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center