Southern California rivers discharge hyperpycnal (river density greater than ocean density) concentrations of suspended sediment (>40 g/L, according to buoyancy theory) during flood events, mostly during El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) conditions. Because hyperpycnal river discharge commonly occurs during brief periods (hours to occasionally days), mean daily flow statistics often do not reveal the magnitude of these events. Hyperpycnal events are particularly important in rivers draining the Transverse Range and account for 75% of the cumulative sediment load discharged by the Santa Clara River over the past 50 yr. These events are highly pulsed, totaling only ∼30 days (∼0.15% of the total 50 yr period). Observations of the fate of sediment discharge, although rare, are consistent with hyperpycnal river dynamics and the high likelihood of turbidity currents during these events. We suggest that much of the sediment load initially bypasses the littoral circulation cells and is directly deposited on the adjacent continental shelf, thus potentially representing a loss of immediate beach sand supply. During particularly exceptional events (>100 yr recurrence intervals), flood underflows may extend past the shelf and escape to offshore basins.

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