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Rock-glacier dynamics and magnitude–frequency relations of debris flows in a high-elevation watershed: Ritigraben, Swiss Alps

Lugon, Ralph
Published in Global and planetary change. 2010, vol. 73, no. 3-4, p. 202-210
Abstract A widespread risk in high mountains is related to the accumulation of loose sediments on steep slopes, which represent potential sources of different types of geomorphic processes including debris flows. This paper combines data on 50 yr of permafrost creep at the Ritigraben rock glacier (Valais, Swiss Alps) with magnitude–frequency (M–F) relationships of debris flows recorded in the Ritigraben torrent originating at the rock-glacier front. Debris production and volumetric changes at the rock-glacier front are compared with debris-flow activity recorded on the cone and potential couplings and feedbacks between debris sources, channel processes and debris sinks. The dataset existing for the Ritigraben rock glacier and its debris-flow system is unique and allows prime insights into controls and dynamics of permafrost processes and related debris-flow activity in a constantly changing and warming high-altitude environment. Acceleration in rock-glacier movement rates is observed in the (1950s and) 1960s, followed by a decrease in flow rates by the 1970s, before movements increase again after the early 1990s. At a decadal scale, measured changes in rock-glacier movements at Ritigraben are in concert with changes in atmospheric temperatures in the Alps. Geodetic data indicates displacement rates in the frontal part of the rock glacier of up to 0.6–0.9 m yr−1 since the beginning of systematic measurements in 1995. While the Ritigraben rock glacier has always formed a sediment reservoir for the associated debris-flow system, annual horizontal displacement rates of the rock-glacier body have remained quite small and are in the order of decimeters under current climatic conditions. Sediment delivery from the rock-glacier front alone could not therefore be sufficient to support the 16 debris flows reconstructed on the cone since 1958. On the contrary, debris accumulated at the foot of the rock glacier, landslide and rockfall activity as well as the partial collapse of oversteepened channel walls have to be seen as important sediment sources of debris flows at Ritigraben and would represent 65–90% of the material arriving on the Ritigraben cone. There does not seem to exist a direct coupling between displacement rates of and sediment delivery by the rock-glacier body and the frequency of small- and medium-magnitude debris flows. In contrast, a direct link between source and sink processes clearly exists in the case of active-layer failures. In this case, failure processes at the rock-glacier snout and debris-flow events in the channel occur simultaneously and are both triggered by the rainfall event.
Keywords PermafrostDebris flowsGeodesyPhotogrammetryDendrogeomorphologyTree ringsClimate changeSwiss Alps
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Research group Climatic Change and Climate Impacts
(ISO format)
LUGON, Ralph, STOFFEL, Markus. Rock-glacier dynamics and magnitude–frequency relations of debris flows in a high-elevation watershed: Ritigraben, Swiss Alps. In: Global and Planetary Change, 2010, vol. 73, n° 3-4, p. 202-210. doi: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2010.06.004 https://archive-ouverte.unige.ch/unige:121704

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Deposited on : 2019-08-20

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