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Rapid post-seismic landslide evacuation boosted by dynamic river width

Abstract

Mass wasting caused by large-magnitude earthquakes chokes mountain rivers with several cubic kilometres of sediment. The timescale and mechanisms by which rivers evacuate small to gigantic landslide deposits are poorly known, but are critical for predicting post-seismic geomorphic hazards, interpreting the signature of earthquakes in sedimentary archives and deciphering the coupling between erosion and tectonics. Here, we use a new 2D hydro-sedimentary evolution model to demonstrate that river self-organization into a narrower alluvial channel overlying the bedrock valley dramatically increases sediment transport capacity and reduces export time of gigantic landslides by orders of magnitude compared with existing theory. Predicted export times obey a universal non-linear relationship of landslide volume and pre-landslide valley transport capacity. Upscaling these results to realistic populations of landslides shows that removing half of the total coarse sediment volume introduced by large earthquakes in the fluvial network would typically take 5 to 25 years in various tectonically active mountain belts, with little impact of earthquake magnitude and climate. Dynamic alluvial channel narrowing is therefore a key, previously unrecognized mechanism by which mountain rivers rapidly digest extreme events and maintain their capacity to incise uplifted rocks.

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Figure 1: Natural case of a landslide deposit incision.
Figure 2: Simulations of landslide removal inside a bedrock valley.
Figure 3: Export time of landslides.
Figure 4: Mean residence time of earthquake-derived landslides in active mountain ranges.
Figure 5: Sensitivity of mean residence time of co-seismic debris to earthquake magnitude.

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Acknowledgements

T.C. and P.S. acknowledge support by the EROQUAKE project funded by the Agence Nationale de le Recherche (ANR) and D.L. acknowledges support by the CNRS/INSU/ALEAS project SEDIQUAKE. A. Bandopadhyay is warmly thanked for his helpful insights concerning the mathematical development of the Monte Carlo approach. We thank D. Jerolmack and R. Hodge for their insightful comments that helped improve the quality of the manuscript.

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All authors contributed equally to the design of the study and the writing of the paper. T.C. designed and performed the simulations and processed their results. P.D. developed the numerical model. T.C., P.S. and D.L. developed the stochastic approach.

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Correspondence to Thomas Croissant.

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Croissant, T., Lague, D., Steer, P. et al. Rapid post-seismic landslide evacuation boosted by dynamic river width. Nature Geosci 10, 680–684 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo3005

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