Geomorphic change caused by outburst floods and debris flows at Mount Rainier, Washington, with emphasis on Tahoma Creek valley

Water-Resources Investigations Report 93-4093




Debris flows have caused rapid geomorphic change in several glacierized drainages on Mount Rainier, Washington. Nearly all of these flows began as glacial outburst floods, then transformed to debris flows by incorporating large masses of sediment in channel reaches where streams have incised proglacial sediments and stagnant glacier ice. This stagnant ice is a relic of advanced glacier positions achieved during the mid-nineteenth century Little Ice Age maximum and the readvance of the 1960's and 1970's. Debris flows have been especially important agents of geomorphic change along Tahoma Creek, which drains South Tahoma Glacier. Debris flows in Tahoma Creek valley have transported downstream about 107 m3 Of sediment since 1967, causing substantial aggradation and damage to roads and facilities in Mount Rainier National Park. The average denudation rate in the upper part of the Tahoma Creek drainage basin in the same period has been extraordinarily high: more than 20 millimeters per year, a value exceeded only rarely in basins affected by debris flows. However, little or none of this sediment has yet passed out of the Tahoma Creek drainage basin. Outburst floods from South Tahoma Glacier form by release of subglacially stored water. The volume of stored water discharged during a typical outburst flood would form a layer several tens of millimeters thick over the bed of the entire glacier, though it is more likely that large linked cavities account for most of the storage. Statistical analysis shows that outburst floods usually occur during periods of atypically hot or rainy weather in summer or early autumn, and that the probability of an outburst increases with temperature (a proxy measure of ablation rate) or rainfall rate. On the basis of these results, we suggest that outburst floods are triggered when rapid input of water to the glacier bed causes transient increase in water pressure, thereby destabilizing the linked-cavity system. The probabilistic nature of the relation between water-input rate and outburst-flood occurrence suggests that the connections between englacial conduits, basal cavities and main meltwater channels may vary temporally. The correlation between outburst floods and meteorological factors casts doubt on an earlier hypothesis that melting around geothermal vents triggers outburst floods from South Tahoma Glacier. The likelihood that outburst floods from South Tahoma Glacier will trigger debris flows should decrease with time, as the deeply incised reach of Tahoma Creek widens by normal slope processes and stagnant ice decays. Drawing analogies to the geomorphic evolution of a reach of Tahoma Creek first incised by an outburst flood in 1967, we suggest the present period of debris-flow activity along Tahoma Creek will last about 25 years, that is, until about the year 2010. Comparison of geomorphic change at Tahoma Creek to that in two other glacierized alphine basins indicates that debris-rich stagnant ice can be an importantsource of sediment to debris flows as long as floods are frequent or channel slope is great.

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Geomorphic change caused by outburst floods and debris flows at Mount Rainier, Washington, with emphasis on Tahoma Creek valley
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Water-Resources Investigations Report
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U.S. Geological Survey ; Books and Open-file Reports [distributor],
vii, 93 p. :ill., maps ;28 cm.