Abstract

Understanding the role of climate and humans in generating mountain slope instability is crucial because such instability influences downstream fluvial activity and is a major threat to societies. Here, we use the sedimentary archive of Lake Allos (southeastern France), a mountain lake in the European Alps, to characterize mountain flood deposits and vegetation dynamics over the past 7000 yr. Our results support the interpretation of a critical threshold in catchment sensitivity to erosion at 1700 calibrated (cal.) yr B.P. (A.D. 250) probably resulting from long-term, uninterrupted impacts of human activity. The frequency and severity of floods increased dramatically after this date. These results demonstrate that underestimation of human impacts over the Holocene may pose a challenge to a clear understanding of past climate changes because paleoflood records are highly likely to have been affected by geomorphic thresholds. Natural reforestation since the end of the 19th century does not appear to be sufficient to induce a flood regime comparable to that which occurred prior to 1700 cal. yr B.P. This poses the question as to whether forest restoration in high-altitude environments is liable to foster a return to a low-erosion regime over the next decades, or whether the overall severity of soil degradation has been such as to preclude a return to previous conditions.

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