The past weekend strong rainfalls caused various debris flows in my near surrounding area, with significant damages and one roadmen missing after a debris flow hit the street he was clearing from detritus.
To understand where and when these events hit is vital for appropriate response tactics and risk evaluation for urban areas. Thereby, the frequency and magnitude of debris flow events are of especial interest, also in view of climate change and human impact.
Information for past debris flow events in historic time can be obtained by studying archives or contemporaneous eyewitness reports/images. Prehistoric events can be reconstructed by 14C-dating of buried soils, dendrochronolgy or lichenometry. The disadvantage of these approaches is their limited time span and coarse resolution.
In the bottom sediments of the lake of Braies, in the Dolomite Alps, another possible long term record was, and still is, studied (IRMLER 2003; IRMLER et al. 2006). The lake Braies is an alpine lake on 1.492m a.s.l. with a maximum area of nearly 36ha and a catchment area of 30 square kilometres. It is surrounded by mountains up to 2.800m, dominated by dolo- and limestone formations. Several debris flow cones extend from the slopes of the mountains to the southern and eastern shores of lake Braies.
View to south with the main debris flow cones entering the lake Braies.
Simplified geological map of the lake and surrounding area (after IRMLER 2003).
In thin sections recovered from cores taken from the bottom lake sediments between annual laminations several "event layers", representing debris flows, were recognised.
Entering the lake, the debris flow brought more fine sediments in the lake then the average sedimentation rate of some millimetres per year. Under the microscope graduated layers, with progressive fining upward sequence, from well-sorted fine to middle sand at the base to silt and clay on the top could be recognized. Load casts and flame like structures support reconstructed rapid deposition. These structures indicate that the sediment moved as underflow (hyperpycnal flow - density current) into the lake basin.
A second category of layers lacked the above mentionetd characteristics, nevertheless these layers show a graduation and are much thicker than the surrounding lamination - up to seven times. These sediments are interpreted as deposits of overflow currents (hypopycnal or homopycnal flow).
Example of the studied core with recognizable annual lamination (from IRMLER 2003).
Erosive contact between annual lamination and a debris flow layer. The base of a debris flow layer is usually very coarse and the single grains more or less the same size.
Photo C) and D) shows so-called "flame structures" and small grooves - caused by the erosion of a debris flow event (Picture size ca 3.9 mm), from IRMLER 2003.
With this approach a debris flow calendar for the last 2250 years could be reconstructed. (IRMLER et al. 2006). During this time the recurrence interval of debris flows varies between 1 and 127 years. At an average of every 16 years a debris flow was deposited. The comparison with climatic phases, from the "Medieval Warm Period" to the "Little Ice Age" showed no significant correlation of events in the catchment area of lake Braies with climatic phases.
The study shows that lake sediments represent a good archive for reconstructing debris flows. In doing so, the record provides the possibility of estimation from the past the threat posed by natural hazards and gives important data for future hazard prediction assessment.
IRMLER, R.; DAUT, G. & MÄUSBACHER, R. (2006): A debris flow calendar derived from sediments of lake Lago di Braies (N. Italy). Geomorphology 77:69-78
IRMLER (2003): Seesedimente als natürliches Archiv zur Erstellung eines Murkalenders am Beispiel des Pragser Wildsees (Norditalien). Ph.D. Thesis, University of Jena, Germany.