Colluvial sedimentation in a hyperarid setting (Atacama Desert, northern Chile): Geomorphic controls and stratigraphic facies variability



Research on colluvial depositional systems has recently emphasized periglacial and high-altitude settings, and the relations between Quaternary slope stratigraphy and climate change. This article examines the role of variable slope morphology, surface hydrology and microclimate in controlling colluvial sedimentation along a coastal tract of the hyperarid Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Direct accessibility of active surfaces is accompanied by uninterrupted stratigraphic exposures along the base of slopes, allowing direct comparisons between surface processes and the resulting sedimentary record. Four slope sectors are identified, based on differences in morphology and processes over active surfaces. Colluvial sedimentation is controlled by complex interactions of slope gradients and profiles, exposure to dominant winds, and potential runoff pathways, which vary considerably between different sectors. Major differences are evident between these hyperarid deposits and slope sedimentation in periglacial and temperate settings, including the complete absence of pedogenic activity and clay minerals; the volume of aeolian deposits and their role in controlling processes which redistribute sediment downslope, extending colluvial aprons; and the occurrence of runoff processes only where favoured by particular topographic configurations. Depositional surfaces range from steep talus cones, to debris-flow-dominated and aeolian-dominated colluvial aprons, to an aeolian ramp subject to reworking by mass flows and flash floods. Consequently, facies associations and architectures at outcrop are highly variable and highlight the importance of spatial variations in slope morphology and processes in producing distinct, coeval colluvial stratigraphies within a single environmental context. Discrepancies between active processes and the corresponding stratigraphic signatures are also evident in some sectors; for example, preservation of alluvial and aeolian facies in stratigraphic sections does not always reflect the dominant processes over active slopes. Together with the spatial variability in processes and deposits along these slopes, this suggests that caution is required when extracting palaeoenvironmental information from analyses of colluvial successions.