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Climate warming enhancement of catastrophic southern California debris flows

Diandong Ren, Lance M. Leslie | June 29th, 2020

The sequence of wildfires followed by debris flows, frequently affects southern California, reflecting its drought-heavy precipitation climate bipolarity. Organic debris from incomplete burning is lighter than inorganic matter, and partially inviscid. Hence lower rainfall totals can trigger downslope motion than typically required by the underlying clasts of loose inorganic granular material. After advection downslope, the pebble-laden organic debris has a higher capacity for rilling; a positive feedback process. A mechanism is proposed whereby boulders are ‘rafted’ by organic debris. This coordinated movement of boulders greatly enhances the debris flow erosion capacity. This climate change sensitive debris flow enhancing mechanism, through organic–inorganic granular material interaction, is supported by observations and the numerical simulations. Using a model explicitly parameterizing erosion processes, including runoff entrainment, rilling incision, and bank collapse, the lifecycle of the Montecito debris flow of January 9, 2018 is simulated, providing quantitative estimates of mass conveyed and debris sorting at the terminus. Peak rafting speeds are ~ 12.9 m/s at ~ 300 m asl. Total boulder (effective diameter > 25 cm) volume involved for the Ysidro Creek area alone is ~ 5 × 104 m3, scattered between the region 50–260 m asl. Debris flows are highly repeatable and locations prone to debris flows are identified and their likelihood of realization estimated.


debris flow, flood management, modeling, stormwater

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