Late Pleistocene earthquake-triggered moraine dam failure and outburst of Lake Zurich, Switzerland



[1] Lakes impounded by moraines may be considered hazardous in glaciated areas throughout the world because dams can fail suddenly producing destructive floods with peak discharges far in excess of normal flows. Here we present a comprehensive case study in the Zurich, Switzerland, area that reveals several independent lines of evidences for the occurrence of a Late Pleistocene (∼13,760 calibrated years B.P.) moraine breach and subsequent Lake Zurich outburst (discharge volume ∼2.5 km3). We use seismic and core data in order to track and date the geological fingerprint of this event. Data from areas downstream of the lake show coarse-grained massive (>25 m thick) reworked morainic deposits behind four breached zones. In Lake Zurich, sedimentary structures recorded in a paleowater depth of ∼36 m indicate strong outburst-induced currents. Hydrodynamic calculations reconstructing the sediment transport capacity explaining the observed bed forms allow estimating averaged outburst discharge to exceed minimum values of ∼2400 m3s−1. The potential maximal magnitude of the outburst is inferred from calculations considering critical flow conditions through the breaches revealing estimated peak discharge of ∼20,600 m3s−1. We also discuss long-term causes and short-term trigger mechanisms of the dam failure that occurred several thousand years after moraine formation and show that it coincides with a reconstructed strong northern alpine earthquake (magnitude >6.5). Our data thus suggest that catastrophic drainage of Lake Zurich was initiated as a consequence of the moraine dam failure that either was triggered by primary earthquake shaking or by secondary effects, such as overtopping by landslide-generated waves.