Multidecadal Geomorphic Evolution of a Profoundly Disturbed Gravel Bed River System—A Complex, Nonlinear Response and Its Impact on Sediment Delivery

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Abstract

A 2.5-km3 debris avalanche during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens buried upper North Fork Toutle River valley and reset the fluvial landscape. Since then, a new drainage network has evolved. Cross-sectional surveys repeated over nearly 40 years at 16 locations along a 20-km reach of river valley document channel evolution. We analyze spatial and temporal changes in channel morphology using two new metrics: (1) a shape index that defines the degree of U-shaped or V-shaped valley geometry and (2) an alluvial phase space diagram that relates bed degradation or aggradation to increases or decreases in cross-sectional area. Unlike a simple, linear response model previously proposed, our analysis reveals channel development has been distinctly nonlinear and nonsequential. Rather than following a sequential trajectory of (1) channel initiation and incision, (2) aggradation and widening, and (3) episodic scour and fill with little change in bed elevation, long-term channel evolution has been more complex with vertical and lateral adjustments intertwined throughout. Our analysis reveals channel evolution has followed a complex trajectory that has migrated nonsequentially through several phase space domains including degradation and aggradation with widening and narrowing, bed-level fluctuations with little change in cross-section area, and changes in cross-sectional area with little change of bed elevation. Persistent channel widening and reworking of the channel bed are responsible for maintaining elevated sediment delivery from this basin. Elevated sediment delivery is likely to persist until valley floor widths greatly exceed that of the channel migration zone, and/or channel slopes and valley walls stabilize.

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Major, J. J., Zheng, S., Mosbrucker, A. R., Spicer, K. R., Christianson, T., & Thorne, C. R. (2019). Multidecadal Geomorphic Evolution of a Profoundly Disturbed Gravel Bed River System—A Complex, Nonlinear Response and Its Impact on Sediment Delivery. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, 124(5), 1281–1309. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018JF004843

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