Morphodynamics and climate controls of two aeolian blowouts on the northern Great Plains, Canada

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Abstract

Blowouts are the most regionally pervasive active aeolian landform on the northern Great Plains of North America. This study reports a long-term investigation into the morphological development of two adjacent blowouts in a continental dune field. The blowouts were monitored for a decade in the Bigstick Sand Hills of southwestern Saskatchewan, Canada. Topographic changes were determined from dense arrays of erosion pins in each blowout (1 per 4 m2, n = 171; and 1 per 16 m2, n = 150). Pin measurements were made 16 times between May 1994 and May 2004. Over the decade both blowouts expanded and more than doubled in volume. Differences in form–flow interactions have caused the larger of the two blowouts to deposit more than a metre of sediment within the deflation basin, and the smaller blowout to erode by more than a metre. A negative feedback effect was triggered when the larger blowout reached a critical size around 1994 (60 m × 36 m × 8·1 m, length × width × height) when sediment was no longer eroded from the deflation basin. A positive feedback in the smaller blowout continues to facilitate erosion from the deflation basin. Monthly observations since 2002 indicate that aspect plays an important role in the development of these blowouts by creating a spatial asymmetry in sediment availability. Sediment is more readily available throughout the year on south-facing slopes, which receive greater insolation than north-facing slopes and are often drier and more frequently thawed in this cold-climate environment. Comparisons between climate data from a remote meteorological station 45 km to the southwest and sediment transport indices developed from the erosion pin data produced very few correlations significant at the 95 per cent confidence level. Nevertheless, the signs of the correlation coefficients indicate that sediment erosion and deposition in both blowouts respond similarly to the following climate variables recorded at the remote station: (i) the amount of precipitation, (ii) the transport capacity of the wind and (iii) transporting winds from a directional wedge between 180 and 330°. Taken altogether, the results from this study highlight the importance of climate and feedback effects in blowout development that may be extended to other blowouts in continental and coastal settings. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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