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Latest Pleistocene–Holocene debris flow activity, Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona; Implications for modern debris-flow hazards under a changing climate

Youberg, Ann M., Webb, Robert H., Fenton, Cassandra R., Pearthree, Philip A.
Geomorphology 2014 v.219 pp. 87-102
Holocene epoch, canyons, climate, climate change, mass movement, models, mountains, sediments, storms, terraces, vegetation, watersheds, Arizona
Hazard mitigation for extreme events such as debris flows requires geologic mapping and chronologic information, particularly for alluvial fans near mountain fronts in the southwestern United States. In July 2006, five consecutive days of monsoonal storms caused hundreds of debris flows in southeastern Arizona, particularly in the southern Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Before 2006, no historical debris flows from the Santa Catalina Mountains reached the populated mountain front, although abundant evidence of prehistoric debris flows is present on downslope alluvial fans. We used a combination of surficial geologic mapping and ¹⁰Be exposure dating to produce a debris-flow history for Pima and Finger Rock Canyons. The largest debris flows, of latest Pleistocene to early Holocene age, covered much of the apices of alluvial fans formed at the mouths of these canyons and extended up to 3km downslope. These debris-flow deposits were inset against higher and older alluvial surfaces with few debris-flow deposits of late Pleistocene age. The ¹⁰Be ages in this study have considerable scatter for surfaces believed to be of uniform age, indicating the dual possibilities of inheritance from previous cosmic-ray exposure, as well as the potential for composite deposits derived from numerous debris flows. We then used an empirical inundation model, LAHARZ, to assess probable magnitudes of the older debris flows to evaluate possible initiation mechanisms. In-channel and terrace storage within the canyons is not sufficient to generate volumes likely needed to produce the larger late Pleistocene to early Holocene debris-flow deposits. The abundance of latest Pleistocene and early Holocene deposits suggests that large debris flows were generated during the instability associated with climate and vegetation changes at the Pleistocene–Holocene transition. Under present watershed conditions with limited sediment supplies, modern debris-flow hazards are generally limited to within mountains and near mountain fronts.