Get access

Cause of dominance by sheetflood vs. debris-flow processes on two adjoining alluvial fans, Death Valley, California



Two large, adjoining alluvial fans of the Panamint Range piedmont, Death Valley, California, are composed of different facies assemblages deposited by contrasting sedimentary processes. The Anvil Spring fan was built solely by water-flow processes (incised-channel floods and sheetfloods), whereas the neighbouring Warm Spring fan has been constructed principally by debris flows. The boundary between these fans delineates a sharp provincial piedmont contact between sheetflood-dominated fans to the south and debris-flow-dominated fans to the north. Factors such as climate, catchment area, fan area, catchment relief, aspect, vegetation types and density, and neotectonic setting are essentially identical for these two fans. The key difference between them is that their catchments are underlain by dissimilar bedrock types, which weather to yield distinctive sediment suites. Weathering of the granite and andesite of the Anvil fan catchment produces significant volumes of medium to very coarse sand, granules, pebbles, cobbles and boulders, but minimal silt and clay. In contrast, the shale, quartzite and dolomite that dominate bedrock in the Warm Spring catchment weather to yield a wide suite of sedimentary particles spanning from clay to boulders. The abundance of mud, and the unsorted character of the yielded sediment, cause precipitation-induced slope failures in the Warm Spring catchment to transform readily into debris flows. This propensity is due to the low permeability of the colluvial sediment, which causes added water to become trapped quickly and pore pressure to rise rapidly, promoting transformations to debris flows. In contrast, the limited volume of sediment finer than medium sand yielded from the Anvil fan catchment causes the colluvium to have high permeability. This factor prevents the transformation of wet colluvium to a debris flow during hydrologically triggered slope failures, instead maintaining sediment transport as entrained bed load or suspended load in a water flow.