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Durham University

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Publication details for Dr Patrice Carbonneau

de Haas, T., Ventra, D., Carbonneau, P.E. & Kleinhans, M.G. (2014). Debris-flow dominance of alluvial fans masked by runoff reworking and weathering. Geomorphology 217: 165-181.

Author(s) from Durham


Arid alluvial fan aggradation is highly episodic and fans often comprise active and inactive sectors. Hence the morphology and texture of fan surfaces are partly determined by secondary processes of weathering and erosion in addition to primary processes of aggradation. This introduces considerable uncertainty in the identification of formative processes of terrestrial and Martian fans from aerial and satellite imagery. The objectives of this study are (i) to develop a model to describe the sedimentological and morphological evolution of inactive fan surfaces in arid settings, and (ii) to assess the relative importance of primary processes of aggradation and secondary processes of weathering and reworking for surface morphology and sedimentology and for the stratigraphic record. We studied an alluvial fan characterized by a recently active sector and a long-abandoned, inactive sector along the coast of the hyperarid Atacama Desert. Here, rates of primary geomorphic activity are exceptionally low because of extreme aridity, while weathering rates are relatively high because of the effects of coastal fogs. Long-term processes of fan aggradation and reworking were determined through sedimentological facies analysis of stratigraphic sections. Ground surveys for textural and morphological patterns at the fan surface were integrated with remote-sensing by an Unmanned Airborne Vehicle (UAV). Discharges and sediment-transport capacities were calculated to estimate the efficiency of secondary runoff in reshaping the inactive fan sector. Stratigraphic sections reveal that the fan was dominantly aggraded by debris flows, whereas surface morphology is dominated by debris-flow signatures in the active sector and by weathering and runoff on the inactive sector. On the latter, rapid particle breakdown prevents the formation of a coarse desert pavement. Furthermore, relatively frequent local runoff events erode proximal debris-flow channels on the inactive sector to form local lag deposits and accumulate fine sediment in low-gradient distal channels, forming a well-developed drainage pattern that would suggest a runoff origin from aerial images. Nevertheless, reworking is very superficial and barely preserved in the stratigraphic record. This implies that fans on Earth and Mars that formed dominantly by sporadic mass flows may be masked by a surface morphology related to other processes.