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Initiation of debris flows in tributaries of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, Arizona

December 31, 1997

Debris flows are initiated in tributaries of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon when intense rainfall causes failures in colluvium and (or) bedrock. Most debris flows occur in the summer during localized convective thunderstorms with rainfall intensities as high as 40 mm/hr. Rarer and larger debris flows occur during unusually warm frontal storms in winter. Hourly precipitation data suggest that storms that cause debris flows terminate with a period of intense rainfall, a characteristic that complicates the use of daily rainfall records in assessing debris-flow hazard. Recurrence intervals for 1-day rainfall associated with 37 recent debris flows range from <1 to >50 years, with most <10 years. Recurrence intervals for the multi-day rainfall of storms associated with debris flows range from <1 to 158 years, but most were >10 years. The low recurrence intervals of debris-flow producing rainfalls, compared with the 10-50 yr recurrence intervals for most debris flows, underscores the co-dependence of debris-flow initiation on geologic factors, including bedrock type and antecedent soil-moisture conditions. The primary geologic factor influencing debris-flow initiation in Grand Canyon is the exposure of shale units at heights >100 m above the river. Exposed shale bedrock fails readily, either producing debris flows directly or contributing source material to wedges of colluvium that may fail later. Shales also provide silt- and clay-size particles that in part determine the rheological properties of debris flows.

Citation Information

Publication Year 1997
Title Initiation of debris flows in tributaries of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, Arizona
Authors Peter G. Griffiths, Robert Webb, Theodore S. Melis
Publication Type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Series Title
Series Number
Index ID 70216723
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Rocky Mountain Regional Office