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Impact of the magnitude and frequency of debris-flow events on the evolution of an alpine alluvial fan during the last two centuries: responses to natural and anthropogenic controls


Riccardo Bersezio, Dipartimento Scienze della Terra, Università di Milano, Via Mangiagalli 34, 20133 I-Milano.



The dynamics and the surface evolution of a post-LGM debris-flow-dominated alluvial fan (Tartano alluvial fan), which lies on the floor of an alpine valley (Valtellina, Northern Italy), have been investigated by means of an integrated study comprising geomorphological field work, a sedimentological study, photointerpretation, quantitative geomorphology, analysis of ancient to modern cartography and consultation of historical documents and records. The fan catchment meteoclimatic, geological and geomorphological characteristics result in fast rates of geomorphic reorganization of the fan surface (2 km2). The dynamics of the fan are determined by the alternation of low-return period catastrophic alluvial events dominated by non-cohesive debris flows triggered by extreme rainstorms which caused aggradation and steepening of the fan and avulsion of its main channel, with periods of low to moderate streamflow discharge punctuated by low- to intermediate-magnitude flood events, causing slower but steady topographic reworking. The most ancient parts of the fan surface date back at least to the first half of the 19th century, but most of the fan surface has been restructured after 1911, mainly during the debris-flow-dominated events of 1911 and 1987. Phases of rapid fan toe incision and fan degradation have been recognized; since the 1930s or 1940s, the Tartano fan has been subjected to a state of deep entrenchment and narrowing of the main trunk channel and distributary area. Post-Little Ice Age climate change and present-day surface uplift rates have been considered as possible explanations for the observed geomorphic evolution, but tectonic or climatic controls cannot account for the order of magnitude of the erosional pace. Anthropogenic controls plausibly override the natural ones: in particular, the building of a dam in the late 1920s, about 2 km upstream of the fan, seems to have triggered fan dissection, having altered the sediment discharge through sediment retention. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.