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Durham University

Department of Geography

Staff Profile

Publication details for Professor Alexander Densmore

Haas, T., Densmore, A. L., Hond, T. & Cox, N. J. Fan‐surface evidence for debris‐flow avulsion controls and probabilities, Saline Valley, California. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface. 2019;124:1118-1138.

Author(s) from Durham


Debris‐flow fans form by shifts of the active channel, termed avulsions. Field and experimental evidence suggest that debris‐flow avulsions may be induced by depositional lobes that locally plug a channel or super‐elevation of the channel bed above the surrounding fan surface, by analogy to fluvial fans. To understand debris‐flow avulsion processes, we differentiate between these controls by quantifying the spatial distribution of debris‐flow lobe and channel dimensions, along with channel‐bed super‐elevation, on nine debris‐flow fans in Saline Valley, California, USA. Channel beds are generally super‐elevated by 2‐5 channel depths above the fan surface, and locally by more than 7 channel depths, thereby substantially exceeding super‐elevation on fluvial fans. Depositional‐lobe thickness and channel depth decrease with distance from the fan apex, although both are highly variable across the fans. Median channel depths roughly correspond to the 50‐75th percentiles of lobe thicknesses, while minimum channel depths roughly correspond to the 10‐25th percentiles. In contrast, the thicknesses of lobes that have triggered avulsions roughly equal local channel depths and are on average twice as thick as the local median lobe thickness. The spatial correspondence between avulsion locations and thick lobe deposits, and the lack of correlation with channel‐bed super‐elevation, leads us to infer that avulsions on these fans are mostly caused by thick lobes forming channel plugs. Although results may vary with climatic and tectonic setting, our findings indicate that avulsion hazard assessment on populated fans should include mapping and monitoring of channel depths relative to typical deposit thicknesses on a given fan.