Ephemeral dams caused by landslides have been observed around the world, yet little is known about the effects of their failure on landforms and vegetation. In 1967, a landslide-dam-break flood in a pristine reach of the Elwha River valley filled the former channel and diverted the river. The reach is a reference site for restoration following the planned removal of dams on the river. We identified five surfaces on the 25 ha debris fan deposited by the flood. Based on tree ages and historic air photos, three of the surfaces formed in 1967, while two formed later. The surfaces varied in substrate (silt and sand, to boulders), and height above the river channel. Tree mortality resulted from tree removal and burial by sediment, the latter leaving snags and some surviving trees. Tree species composition was generally consistent within each surface. Dominant species included red alder (Alnus rubra) and Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis), alone or in combination, a combination of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa), or a combination of alder and Cottonwood. There were significant differences between surfaces in stem density, basal area, and rate of basal area growth. The large degree of heterogeneity in forest structure, composition, and productivity within a relatively small floodplain feature is in part due to spatial variability in the intensity of a single disturbance event, and in part due to the occurrence of subsequent, smaller events. To recreate natural diversity of riparian forests may require mimicking the variety of physical and biotic habitats that a single, complex disturbance event may create.
Additional publication details
Effects of a natural dam-break flood on geomorphology and vegetation on the Elwha River, Washington, U.S.A.