Sedimentology, Behavior, and Hazards of Debris Flows at Mount Rainier, Washington

Professional Paper 1547

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Mount Rainier is potentially the most dangerous volcano in the Cascade Range because of its great height, frequent earthquakes, active hydrothermal system, and extensive glacier mantle. Many debris flows and their distal phases have inundated areas far from the volcano during postglacial time. Two types of debris flows, cohesive and noncohesive, have radically different origins and behavior that relate empirically to clay content. The two types are the major subpopulations of debris flows at Mount Rainier. The behavior of cohesive flows is affected by the cohesion and adhesion of particles; noncohesive flows are dominated by particle collisions to the extent that particle cataclasis becomes common during near-boundary shear. Cohesive debris flows contain more than 3 to 5 percent of clay-size sediment. The composition of these flows changed little as they traveled more than 100 kilometers from Mount Rainier to inundate parts of the now-populated Puget Sound lowland. They originate as deep-seated failures of sectors of the volcanic edifice, and such failures are sufficiently frequent that they are the major destructional process of Mount Rainier's morphologic evolution. In several deposits of large cohesive flows, a lateral, megaclast-bearing facies (with a mounded or hummocky surface) contrasts with a more clay-rich facies in the center of valleys and downstream. Cohesive flows at Mount Rainier do not correlate strongly with volcanic activity and thus can recur without warning, possibly triggered by non-magmatic earthquakes or by changes in the hydrothermal system. Noncohesive debris flows contain less than 3 to 5 percent clay-size sediment. They form most commonly by bulking of sediment in water surges, but some originate directly or indirectly from shallow slope failures that do not penetrate the hydrothermally altered core of the volcano. In contrast with cohesive flows, most noncohesive flows transform both from and to other flow types and are, therefore, the middle segments of flow waves that begin and end as flood surges. Proximally, through the bulking of poorly sorted volcaniclastic debris on the flanks of the volcano, flow waves expand rapidly in volume by transforming from water surges through hyperconcentrated stream flow (20 to 60 percent sediment by volume) to debris flow. Distally, the transformations occur more slowly in reverse order - from debris flow, to hyperconcentrated flow, and finally to normal streamflow with less than 20 percent sediment by volume. During runout of the largest noncohesive flows, hyperconcentrated flow has continued for as much as 40 to 70 kilometers. Lahars (volcanic debris flows and their deposits) have occurred frequently at Mount Rainier over the past several thousand years, and generally they have not clustered within discrete eruptive periods as at Mount St. Helens. An exception is a period of large noncohesive flows during and after construction of the modern summit cone. Deposits from lahar-runout flows, the hyperconcentrated distal phases of lahars, document the frequency and extent of noncohesive lahars. These deposits also record the following transformations of debris flows: (1) the direct, progressive dilution of debris flow to hyperconcentrated flow, (2) deposition of successively finer grained lobes of debris until only the hyperconcentrated tail of the flow remains to continue downstream, and (3) dewatering of coarse debris flow deposits to yield fine-grained debris flow or hyperconcentrated flow. Three planning or design case histories represent different lengths of postglacial time. Case I is representative of large, infrequent (500 to 1,000 years on average) cohesive debris flows. These flows need to be considered in long-term planning in valleys around the volcano. Case II generalizes the noncohesive debris flows of intermediate size and recurrence (100 to 500 years). This case is appropriate for consideration in some structural design. Case III flows are

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USGS Numbered Series
Sedimentology, Behavior, and Hazards of Debris Flows at Mount Rainier, Washington
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Professional Paper
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U.S. Geological Survey
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U.S. Geological Survey
56 p.