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Relations between rainfall–runoff-induced erosion and aeolian deposition at archaeological sites in a semi-arid dam-controlled river corridor

January 14, 2016

Process dynamics in fluvial-based dryland environments are highly complex with fluvial, aeolian, and alluvial processes all contributing to landscape change. When anthropogenic activities such as dam-building affect fluvial processes, the complexity in local response can be further increased by flood- and sediment-limiting flows. Understanding these complexities is key to predicting landscape behavior in drylands and has important scientific and management implications, including for studies related to paleoclimatology, landscape ecology evolution, and archaeological site context and preservation. Here we use multi-temporal LiDAR surveys, local weather data, and geomorphological observations to identify trends in site change throughout the 446-km-long semi-arid Colorado River corridor in Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA, where archaeological site degradation related to the effects of upstream dam operation is a concern. Using several site case studies, we show the range of landscape responses that might be expected from concomitant occurrence of dam-controlled fluvial sand bar deposition, aeolian sand transport, and rainfall-induced erosion. Empirical rainfall-erosion threshold analyses coupled with a numerical rainfall–runoff–soil erosion model indicate that infiltration-excess overland flow and gullying govern large-scale (centimeter- to decimeter-scale) landscape changes, but that aeolian deposition can in some cases mitigate gully erosion. Whereas threshold analyses identify the normalized rainfall intensity (defined as the ratio of rainfall intensity to hydraulic conductivity) as the primary factor governing hydrologic-driven erosion, assessment of false positives and false negatives in the dataset highlight topographic slope as the next most important parameter governing site response. Analysis of 4+ years of high resolution (four-minute) weather data and 75+ years of low resolution (daily) climate records indicates that dryland erosion is dependent on short-term, storm-driven rainfall intensity rather than cumulative rainfall, and that erosion can occur outside of wet seasons and even wet years. These results can apply to other similar semi-arid landscapes where process complexity may not be fully understood.