Holocene debris flows do not occur uniformly on the Colorado Plateau province of North America. Debris flows occur in specific areas of the plateau, resulting in general from the combination of steep topography, intense convective precipitation, abundant poorly sorted material not stabilized by vegetation, and the exposure of certain fine-grained bedrock units in cliffs or in colluvium beneath those cliffs. In Grand and Cataract Canyons, fine-grained bedrock that produces debris flows contains primarily single-layer clays—notably illite and kaolinite—and has low multilayer clay content. This clay-mineral suite also occurs in the colluvium that produces debris flows as well as in debris-flow deposits, although unconsolidated deposits have less illite than the source bedrock. We investigate the relation between the clay mineralogy and major-cation chemistry of fine-grained bedrock units and the occurrence of debris flows on the entire Colorado Plateau. We determined that 85 mapped fine-grained bedrock units potentially could produce debris flows, and we analyzed clay mineralogy and major-cation concentration of 52 of the most widely distributed units, particularly those exposed in steep topography. Fine-grained bedrock units that produce debris flows contained an average of 71% kaolinite and illite and 5% montmorillonite and have a higher concentration of potassium and magnesium than nonproducing units, which have an average of 51% montmorillonite and a higher concentration of sodium. We used multivariate statistics to discriminate fine-grained bedrock units with the potential to produce debris flows, and we used digital-elevation models and mapped distribution of debris-flow producing units to derive a map that predicts potential occurrence of Holocene debris flows on the Colorado Plateau.

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