Sediment controls on the transition from debris flow to fluvial channels in steep mountain ranges

Alexander B. Neely, Roman A. DiBiase

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Steep channel networks commonly show a transition from constant-gradient colluvial channels associated with debris flow activity to concave-up fluvial channels downstream. The trade-off between debris flow and fluvial erosion in steep channels remains unclear, which obscures connections among topography, tectonics, and climate in steep landscapes. Here, we analyze steep debris-flow-prone channels across the western United States and observe: (1) similar maximum channel gradients across a range of catchment erosion rates and geologic settings; and (2) lengthening colluvial channels with coarsening sediment cover. Following this compilation, we hypothesize that steep channel gradients are controlled by two competing thresholds of motion for bed-sediment cover: bed failure by mass-wasting and fluvial entrainment. We use downstream patterns in discharge, channel geometry, and sediment size to calculate discharges needed to mobilize sediment cover by both mechanisms across channels in the San Gabriel Mountains (SGM) and northern San Jacinto Mountains (NSJM) in southern California. Across steep colluvial channels in both landscapes, decadal discharges are below fluvial entrainment thresholds but above mass-wasting entrainment thresholds for (Figure presented.) (median) sediment sizes, consistent with recent debris flows captured by repeat imagery. Colluvial channel gradient is similar despite > 3× contrasts in surface sediment grain size. In concave-up fluvial channels downstream, decadal discharges exceed fluvial entrainment thresholds, and mass-wasting is not predicted on lower gradients. In both landscapes, fluvial channels steepen downstream compared to gradients needed to mobilize sediment cover, which we interpret to reflect downstream increases in sediment flux. Coarser sediment supply in the NSJM than the SGM increases fluvial entrainment thresholds, which increases total channel relief in the NSJM by (1) lengthening colluvial channels shaped by debris flows and (2) increasing fluvial channel gradients. Our compilation and downstream analysis show how differing sensitivity of fluvial and debris flow processes to sediment grain size impacts the relative relief of colluvial and fluvial regimes in headwater channel networks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1342-1361
Number of pages20
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jun 15 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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