Rainfall characteristics for periglacial debris flows in the Swiss Alps: past incidences–potential future evolutions
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Based on observational meteorological data since A.D. 1864 and tree-ring records of debris-flow activity, this paper assesses changes in rainfall characteristics and their impact on the triggering of geomorphic events in a high-elevation watershed of the Swiss Alps since the end of the Little Ice Age. No trends are visible in the frequency of heavy rainfall events, but we observe a reduced number of heavy, short-lived rainfalls in summer and a concentration of advective storms is recorded in late summer and early fall since the late 1980s. These changes in triggering meteorological conditions resulted in a cluster of debris flows in the early decades of the twentieth century and a lowering of debris-flow activity since the mid 1990s, and may be mirroring the observed changes in persistent high-pressure systems over the Alps. We also observe intra-seasonal differences in debris-flow system response reflecting the state of the permafrost body in the source area of debris flows, allowing for very small debris flows to be released by limited rainfall inputs (<20 mm) in June and July. The same quantities of rain will not trigger debris flows in August or September, when a thick active layer of the permafrost body is capable of absorbing water. With the projected amplitude of climatic change, seasonality, return intervals and volumes of debris flows are likely to be altered. RCM projections based on the IPCC A2 scenario suggest a decrease in heavy summer rainfalls which will most likely result in a (further) reduction of the overall frequency of debris flows, leaving more time for sediment to accumulate in the channel. Such an increase of channel accumulation rates along with the projected destabilization of the steep rock-glacier body is likely, in turn, to exert control ultimately on sediment volumes released from the source areas during future events. Observations from adjacent catchments suggest that extremely large debris flows, beyond historical experience, could occur at the study site and in similar debris-flow systems of the Valais Alps originating from periglacial environments.
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