Articles | Volume 2, issue 1
Research article
23 Jan 2014
Research article |  | 23 Jan 2014

Seismic constraints on dynamic links between geomorphic processes and routing of sediment in a steep mountain catchment

A. Burtin, N. Hovius, B. W. McArdell, J. M. Turowski, and J. Vergne

Abstract. Landscape dynamics are determined by interactions amongst geomorphic processes. These interactions allow the effects of tectonic, climatic and seismic perturbations to propagate across topographic domains, and permit the impacts of geomorphic process events to radiate from their point of origin. Visual remote sensing and in situ observations do not fully resolve the spatiotemporal patterns of surface processes in a landscape. As a result, the mechanisms and scales of geomorphic connectivity are poorly understood. Because many surface processes emit seismic signals, seismology can determine their type, location and timing with a resolution that reveals the operation of integral landscapes. Using seismic records, we show how hillslopes and channels in an Alpine catchment are interconnected to produce evolving, sediment-laden flows. This is done for a convective storm, which triggered a sequence of hillslope processes and debris flows. We observe the evolution of these process events and explore the operation of two-way links between mass wasting and channel processes, which are fundamental to the dynamics of most erosional landscapes. We also track the characteristics and propagation of flows along the debris flow channel, relating changes of observed energy to the deposition/mobilization of sediments, and using the spectral content of debris flow seismic signals to qualitatively infer sediment characteristics and channel abrasion potential. This seismological approach can help to test theoretical concepts of landscape dynamics and yield understanding of the nature and efficiency of links between individual geomorphic processes, which is required to accurately model landscape dynamics under changing tectonic or climatic conditions and to anticipate the natural hazard risk associated with specific meteorological events.