Abstract

In mountainous landscapes with weak, fine-grained rocks, earthflows can dominate erosion and landscape evolution by supplying sediment to channels and controlling hillslope morphology. To estimate the contribution of earthflows to regional sediment budgets and identify patterns of landslide activity, earthflow movement needs to be quantified over significant spatial and temporal scales. Presently, there is a paucity of data that can be used to predict earthflow behavior beyond the seasonal scale or over spatially extensive study areas. Across 226 km2 of rapidly eroding Franciscan Complex rocks of the Eel River catchment, northern California, we used a combination of LiDAR (light detection and ranging) and orthorectified historical aerial photographs to objectively map earthflow movement between 1944 and 2006. By tracking the displacement of trees growing on earthflow surfaces, we find that 7.3% of the study area experienced movement over this 62 yr interval, preferentially in sheared argillaceous lithology. This movement is distributed across 122 earthflow features that have intricate, elongate planform shapes, a preferred south-southwesterly aspect, and a mean longitudinal slope of 31%. The distribution of mapped earthflow areas is well-approximated by a lognormal distribution with a median size of 36,500 m2. Approximately 6% of the study area is composed of earthflows that connect to major channels; these flows generated an average sediment yield of 19,000 t km−2 yr−1 (rock erosion rate of ∼7.6 mm/yr) over the 62 yr study period, equating to a regional yield of 1100 t km−2 yr−1 (∼0.45 mm/yr) if distributed across the study area. As such, a small fraction of the landscape can account for half of the regional denudation rate estimated from suspended sediment records (2200 t km−2 yr−1 or ∼0.9 mm/yr). We propose a conceptual model for long-term earthflow evolution wherein earthflows experience intermittent activity and long periods of dormancy when limited by the availability of readily mobilized sediment on upper slopes. Ultimately, high-order river channels and ephemeral gully networks may serve to destabilize hillslopes, controlling the evolution of earthflow-prone terrain.

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