Debris flows as geomorphic agents in the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona




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Numerous debris flows occurred in the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona during the summer rainy season of 1988 in areas that were burned by a forest fire earlier in the summer. Debris flows occurred following a major forest fire in 1977 as well, suggesting a causal link between fires and debris flows. Abundant evidence of older debris flows preserved along channels and in mountain front fans indicates that debris flows have occurred repeteadly during the late Quaternary in this environment. Soil development in sequences of debris-flow deposits indicates that debris flows probably recur over time intervals of several hundred to a thousand years in individual drainage basins in the study area. Surface runoff in the steep drainage basins of the Huachuca Mountains is greatly enhanced following forest fires, as the hillslopes are denuded of their vegetative cover. Water and sediment eroded from the hillslope regolith are rapidly introduced into the upper reaches of tributary channels by widespread rilling and slope wash during rainfall events. This influx of water and sediment destabilizes regolith previously accumulated in the channel, triggering debris flows that scour the channel to bedrock in the upper reaches. Following a debris flow, the scoured, trapezoidally-shaped channel gradually assumes a swale shape and the percentage of exposed bedrock declines, as material is introduced from the slopes. Debris flows do a tremendous amount of work in a very short time, however, and are the major channel-forming events. Where the tributary channels enter larger, trunk channels, the debris flows serve as the main source of very coarse sediment. The local slope and coarse particle distribution of the trunk channel depend on the competence of water flows in the channel to transport the material introduced by debris flows. Where the smaller channels drain directly to the mountain front, debris flows create extensive alluvial fans which dominate the morphology of the basin-range boundary. Time intervals between debris flows in the drainage basins of the Huachuca Mountains are probably controlled by complex interactions among climate, forest fires and slope processes. Fires destroy the protective vegetation that stabilizes the upper catchment slopes and inhibits erosion. However, not every fire that burns a catchment causes debris flows, because sufficient weathered material must accumulate in the upper channel reaches to initiate a large debris flow. If such accumulation has not occurred, the material introduced to a channel following a forest fire will move only a short distance down the channel. Thus, the episodic nature of debris flows probably depends on rates of slope weathering and erosion, which are in turn controlled by climate, both directly and through vegetation and forest fires. ?? 1991.

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Debris flows as geomorphic agents in the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona
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