From Rivers to Landslides: Charting the Slopes of Sediment Transport

In the Earth Surface Dynamics Lab at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) the behavior of rivers is modeled through the use of artificial rivers—flumes—through which water can be pumped at varying rates over a variety of carefully graded sediments while drag force and acceleration are measured. The largest flume is a 12-meter tilting version that can model many river conditions; another flume models the languid process of a nearly flat river bed forming a delta as it reaches a pool. Additional flumes are constructed in the lab on an as-needed basis, as in a recent study testing sediment transport in very steep channels.

One such newly constructed flume demonstrates that the slope of streambeds has dramatic and unexpected effects on sediment transport. Logic would suggest that steeper streambeds should allow for easy sediment transport since, as the angle of the slope increases, gravity should assist with moving water and sediment downstream. But experimental data from the flume lab show that gravity does not facilitate sediment transport in the expected manner. Furthermore, in very steep streambeds with a 22-degree or higher slope, sediment motion begins not with grains skipping and bouncing along the bottom of the streambed, but rather with a complete bed failure in which all the sediment is abruptly sent hurtling downstream as a debris flow.

"Most previous work was done on low-gradient channels with a gentle slope," says Michael P. Lamb, assistant professor of geology at Caltech. "These are the rivers, like the Mississippi, where people live and pilot boats, and where we worry about flooding. Low-gradient channels have been studied by civil engineers for hundreds of years." Much less attention has been paid to steeper mountain channels, in part because they are more difficult to study. "Counterintuitively, in steep channels sediment rarely moves, and when it does it is extremely dangerous to measure since it typically includes boulders and large cobbles," explains Lamb.

And so Lamb, along with Caltech graduate student Jeff Prancevic and staff scientist Brian Fuller, set out to model the behavior of steep channels on an artificial watercourse—a flume—that they created for just this purpose. They intentionally removed key variables that occur in nature, such as unevenness in grain size and in the streambed itself (in steep channels there are often varying slopes with waterfalls and pools), so that they could concentrate solely on the effect of bed slope on sediment transport. They created a uniform layer of gravel on the bed of the flume and then began running water down it in increasing quantities, measuring how much water was required to initiate sediment motion. Gradually they tilted the flume to steeper angles, continuing to observe when and how sediment moved as water was added to the system.

Based on studies of sediment motion in low-gradient channels, geologists have long assumed that there is a linear relation between a watercourse's slope and the stress placed by water and gravity on the streambed. That is, as the angle of the streambed increases, the quantity of water required to move sediment should decrease in a simple 1-to-1 ratio. Lamb and Prancevic's flume experiments did indeed show that steeper slopes require less water to move sediment than flatter streambeds. But contrary to earlier predictions, one cannot simply raise the slope by, say, 2 percent while decreasing the water depth by 2 percent and see the same pattern of sediment transport. Instead, as the flume tilted upward in these experiments, a proportionately greater amount of water was needed to initiate sediment motion. By the time the flume was tilted to a slope of 20 degrees, five times the depth of water as previously predicted was needed to move the gravel downstream.

At one level, this experimental data squares with field observations. "If you go out to the Mississippi," says Lamb, "sand is moving almost all the time along the bed of the river. But in mountain channels, the sediment that makes up the bed of the river very rarely moves except during extreme flood events. This sediment is inherently more stable, which is the opposite of what you might expect." The explanation for why this is the case seems to lie with the uneven terrain and shallow waters common to streams in steep mountain terrain.

Experiments with the tilting flume also allowed Lamb and Prancevic to simulate important transitions in sediment transport: from no motion at all, to normal fluvial conditions in which sediment rolls along the streambed, to bed failure, in which the entire sediment bed gives way in a debris flow, stripping the channel down to bedrock. The researchers found that with lower slopes, as the water discharge was increased, individual grains of sediment began to break free and tumble along the flume bed; this pattern is common to the sediment-movement processes of low-gradient riverbeds. As the slope increased, the sediment became more stable, requiring proportionately more water to begin sediment transport. Eventually, the slope reached a transition zone where regular river processes were completely absent. In these steeply sloped flumes, the first sediment motion that occurred represented a complete bed failure, in which all of the grains slid down the channel en masse. "This suggests that there's a certain slope, around 22 degrees in our experiments, where sediment is the most stable, but these channel slopes are also potentially the most dangerous because here the sediment bed can fail catastrophically in rare, large-magnitude flood events," Lamb explains.

Researchers previously believed that debris flows in mountain terrain primarily derived from rainfall-triggered landslides flowing into watercourses from surrounding hillsides. However, the flume-lab experiments suggest that a debris flow can occur in a steep river channel in the absence of such a landslide, simply as a result of increased water discharge over the streambed.

"Understanding when and how sediment first moves at different channel slopes can be used to predict the occurrence of debris flows which affect people and infrastructure," Lamb says. There are other, wide-ranging implications. For example, some fish, like salmon, build their nests only in gravel of a certain size, he notes, and so, "as rivers are increasingly being restored for fish habitat, it is important to know what slopes and flow depths will preserve a particular size of gravel on the riverbed." In addition, he adds, "a better understanding of sediment transport can be used to reconstruct environments of Earth's past or on other planets, such as Mars, through observations of previously moved sediment, now preserved in deposits."

The paper, "Incipient sediment motion across the river to debris-flow transition," appears in the journal Geology. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Terrestrial Hazard Observation and Reporting Center at Caltech, and the Keck Institute for Space Studies.

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Cynthia Eller
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Monday, May 5, 2014
Moore 070

Teaching Statement Workshop - 2-Part Event

Monday, May 12, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space)

Teaching Statement Workshop - 2-Part Event

Friday, April 4, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space)

Spring TA Training

Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space)

Spring Head TA Lunch

Caltech Alum Leshin Named President of Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Caltech alumna Laurie Leshin (MS '89, PhD '95), has been named the new president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts. Leshin, previously the dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), will be the first woman to lead WPI in the university's 150-year history.

Both of Leshin's Caltech degrees were in geochemistry. "Laurie did an important thesis measuring the deuterium/hydrogen ratios of martian meteorites that got her off to a strong start in her academic career. Her subsequent contributions as a professor, as a scientist and administrator at NASA, and as an academic leader at RPI have prepared her well for this leadership role," says Caltech interim president and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology Edward Stolper, who, along with Sam Epstein (Caltech's first Leonhard Professor), coadvised Leshin during her time as a graduate student at Caltech.

After earning her doctoral degree from Caltech in 1995, Leshin worked as a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, followed by a faculty position as a professor of geological sciences at Arizona State University (ASU). Her research and administrative contributions led to her appointment, in 2005, as director of science exploration at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Leshin joined the faculty at RPI in 2011.

In her administrative position at RPI, she increased the size of the institute faculty while also supporting curriculum changes and interdisciplinary academic initiatives. She also continued her research as a geochemist and space scientist, and served as a member of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Science Team that analyzed data collected by the Curiosity rover to find the evidence of water on the surface of Mars.

"She is a natural leader," says Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger, Caltech's Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology. "Laurie Leshin is a first-rate scholar with tremendous energy and a deep understanding of planetary science. Her involvement in MSL has been substantial even as she worked as dean at RPI, engaging as a member of two different instrument teams and also serving as a mission strategic planner, helping to integrate Curiosity's complex activities."

When Leshin begins her term as WPI's 16th president on July 1, 2014, she will join a list of at least 11 other Caltech alumni who are currently serving as presidents of colleges, universities, and research institutions around the world.

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Thursday, February 6, 2014
Arms 155 (Robert P. Sharp Lecture Hall)

The 50th Anniversary of Planetary Sciences at Caltech

Lessons from the 1994 Northridge Quake

Current Earthquake Research at Caltech

Since the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake 20 years ago (January 17, 1994), researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have learned much more about where earthquakes are likely to happen, and how danger to human life and damage to property might be mitigated when they do occur.

"The Northridge quake really heralded the beginning of a new era in earthquake research, not only in southern California, but worldwide," says Michael Gurnis, John E. and Hazel S. Smits Professor of Geophysics, and director of the Seismological Laboratory at Caltech.

In the years just prior to the Northridge earthquake, Caltech launched a program called TERRAscope supported by the Whittier foundations, which placed high-quality seismic sensors near where earthquakes occur. The Northridge earthquake was, in effect, the first test of TERRAscope in which Caltech scientists could infer the distribution of an earthquake rupture on subsurface faults and directly measure the associated motion of the ground with greater accuracy. "With a modern digital seismic network, the potential of measuring ground shaking in real time presented itself," says Gurnis. "The real time view also gave first responders detailed maps of ground shaking so that they could respond to those in need immediately after a quake," adds Egill Hauksson, senior research associate at Caltech.

To give us this new view of earthquakes, Caltech collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the California Geological Survey to form TriNet, through which a vastly expanded network of instrumentation was put in place across southern California. Concurrently, a new network of continuously operated GPS stations was permanently deployed by a group of geophysicists under the auspices of the Southern California Earthquake Center, funded by the USGS, NASA, NSF, and the Keck Foundation. GPS data are used to measure displacements as small as 1 millimeter per year between stations at any two locations, making it possible to track motions during, between, and after earthquakes. Similar and even larger networks of seismometers and GPS sensors have now been deployed across the United States, especially EarthScope, supported by the NSF, and in countries around the world by various respective national agencies like the networks deployed by the Japanese government.

Initially, says Gurnis, there were not many large earthquakes to track with the new dense network of broadband seismic instruments and GPS devices. That all changed in December 2004 with the magnitude 9.3 earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Quite abruptly, Caltech scientists had an enormous amount of information coming in from the instrumentation in Indonesia previously deployed by the Caltech Techtonics Observatory with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. By the time the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake hit northern Japan in 2011, the Seismological Laboratory at Caltech had developed greatly expanded computing power capable of ingesting massive amounts of seismic and geodetic data. Within weeks of the disaster, a team led by Caltech professor of geophysics Mark Simons using data from GPS systems installed by the Japanese had produced extensive measurements of ground motion, as well as earthquake models constrained by this data, that provided new insight into the mechanics of plate tectonics and fault ruptures.

The Tohoku-Oki earthquake was unprecedented: scientists estimate that over 50 meters of slip on the subsurface fault occurred during the devastating earthquake. Currently, scientists at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are prototyping new automated systems for exploiting the wealth of GPS and satellite imaging data to rapidly provide disaster assessment and situational awareness as events occur around the globe. "We are now at a juncture in time where new observational capabilities and available computational power will allow us to provide critical information with unprecedented speed and resolution," says Simons.

Earthquakes are notable—and, for many, particularly upsetting—because they have always come without warning. Earthquakes do in fact happen quickly and unpredictably, but not so much so that early-warning systems are impossible. In a Moore Foundation-supported collaboration with UC Berkeley, the University of Washington, and the USGS, Caltech is developing a prototype early-warning system that may provide seconds to tens of seconds of warning to people in areas about to experience ground shaking, and minutes of warning to people potentially in the path of a tsunami. Japan invested heavily in an earthquake early-warning system after the magnitude 6.9 Kobe earthquake that occurred January 17, 1995, on the one-year anniversary of the Northridge earthquake, and the system performed well during the Tohoku-Oki earthquake. "It was a major scientific and technological accomplishment," says Gurnis. "High-speed rail trains slowed and stopped as earthquake warnings came in, and there were no derailments as a result of the quake."

Closer to home, Caltech professor of geophysics Robert Clayton has aided local earthquake detection by distributing wallet-sized seismometers to residents of the greater Pasadena area to keep in their homes. The seismometers are attached to a USB drive on each resident's computer, which is to remain on at all times. The data from these seismometers serve two functions: they record seismic activity on a detailed block-by-block scale, and, in the event of a large earthquake, they can help identify areas that are hardest hit. One lesson learned in the Northridge earthquake was that serious damage can occur far from the epicenter of an earthquake. The presence of many seismometers could help first responders to find the worst-affected areas more quickly after an earthquake strikes.

Caltech scientists have also been playing a leading role in the large multi-institutional Salton Seismic Imaging Project. The project is mapping the San Andreas fault and discovering additional faults by setting off underground explosions and underwater bursts of compressed air and then measuring the transmission of the resulting sound waves and vibrations through sediment. According to Joann Stock, professor of geology and geophysics at Caltech, knowing the geometry of faults and the composition of nearby sediments informs our understanding of the types of earthquakes that will occur in the future, and the reaction of the local sediment to ground shaking.

In addition, Caltech scientists learned much through simulating—via both computer modeling and physical modeling techniques—how earthquakes occur and what they leave in their aftermath.

Computer simulations of how buildings respond during earthquakes recently allowed Caltech professors Thomas Heaton, professor of engineering seismology, and John Hall, professor of civil engineering, to estimate the decrease in building safety caused by the existence of defective welds in steel-frame structures, a problem identified after the Northridge earthquake. Researchers simulated the behavior of different 6- and 20-story building models in a variety of potential earthquake scenarios created by the Southern California Earthquake Center for the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. The study showed that defective welds make a building significantly more susceptible to collapse and irreparable damage, and also found that stiffer, higher-strength buildings perform better than more flexible, lower-strength designs.

Caltech professor of mechanical engineering and geophysics Nadia Lapusta recently used computer simulations of numerous earthquakes to determine what role "creeping" fault slip might play in earthquake events. It has been known for some time that, in addition to the rapid displacements that trigger earthquakes, land also slips very slowly along fault lines, a process that was thought to stop incoming earthquake rupture. Instead, Lapusta's models show that these "stable segments" may become seismically active in an earthquake, accelerating and even strengthening its motions. Lapusta hypothesizes that this was one factor behind the severity of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Taking advantage of advances in computer modeling, Lapusta and her colleague Jean-Philippe Avouac, Earle C. Anthony Professor of Geology at Caltech, have created a comprehensive model of a fault zone, including both its earthquake activity and its behavior in seismically quiet times.

Physical modeling of earthquakes is carried out at Caltech via collaborative efforts between the Divisions of Geological and Planetary Sciences and of Engineering and Applied Science. A series of experiments conducted by Ares Rosakis, the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering, and collaborators including Lapusta and Hiroo Kanamori, the John E. and Hazel S. Smits Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus, used polymer plates to simulate land masses. Stresses were then created at various angles to the fault lines between the plates to set off earthquake-like activity. The motion in the polymer plates was measured by laser vibrometers while a high-speed camera recorded the movements in detail, yielding unprecedented data on the propagation of seismic waves. Researchers learned that strike-slip faults like the San Andreas may rupture in more than one direction (it was previously believed that these faults had a preferred direction), and that in addition to sliding along a fault, ruptures may occur in a "self-healing" pulselike manner in which a seismic wave "crawls" down a fault line. A third study drew conclusions about how faults will behave—in either a classic cracklike sliding rupture or in a pulselike rupture—depending on the angle at which compression forces strike the fault.

"Northridge was a devastating earthquake for Los Angeles, and there was a massive amount of damage," Gurnis says, "But in some sense, we stepped up to the plate after Northridge to determine what we could do better. And as a result we have ushered in an era of dense, high-fidelity geophysical networks on top of hazardous faults. We've exploited these networks to better understand how earthquakes occur, and we've pushed the limits such that we are now at the dawn of a new era of earthquake early warning in the United States. That's because of Northridge."

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Cynthia Eller
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Megafloods: What They Leave Behind

South-central Idaho and the surface of Mars have an interesting geological feature in common: amphitheater-headed canyons. These U-shaped canyons with tall vertical headwalls are found near the Snake River in Idaho as well as on the surface of Mars, according to photographs taken by satellites. Various explanations for how these canyons formed have been offered—some for Mars, some for Idaho, some for both—but in a paper published the week of December 16 in the online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Caltech professor of geology Michael P. Lamb, Benjamin Mackey, formerly a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, and W. M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry Kenneth A. Farley offer a plausible account that all these canyons were created by enormous floods.

Canyons in Malad Gorge State Park, Idaho, are carved into a relatively flat plain composed of a type of volcanic rock known as basalt. The basalt originated from a hotspot, located in what is now Yellowstone Park, which has been active for the last few million years. Two canyons in Malad Gorge, Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon, are characterized by tall vertical headwalls, roughly 150 feet high, that curve around to form an amphitheater. Other amphitheater-headed canyons can be found nearby, outside the Gorge—Box Canyon, Blue Lakes Canyon, and Devil's Corral—and also elsewhere on Earth, such as in Iceland.

To figure out how they formed, Lamb and Mackey conducted field surveys and collected rock samples from Woody's Cove, Stubby Canyon, and a third canyon in Malad Gorge, known as Pointed Canyon. As its name indicates, Pointed Canyon ends not in an amphitheater but in a point, as it progressively narrows in the upstream direction toward the plateau at an average 7 percent grade. Through Pointed Canyon flows the Wood River, a tributary of the larger Snake River, which in turn empties into the Columbia River on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

Geologists have a good understanding of how the rocks in Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon achieved their characteristic appearance. The lava flows that hardened into basalt were initially laid down in layers, some more than six feet thick. As the lava cooled, it contracted and cracked, just as mud does when it dries. This produced vertical cracks across the entire layer of lava-turned-basalt. As each additional sheet of lava covered the same land, it too cooled and cracked vertically, leaving a wall that, when exposed, looks like stacks of tall blocks, slightly offset from one another with each additional layer. This type of structure is called columnar basalt.

While the formation of columnar basalt is well understood, it is not clear how, at Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon, the vertical walls became exposed or how they took on their curved shapes. The conventional explanation is that the canyons were formed via a process called "groundwater sapping," in which springs at the bottom of the canyon gradually carve tunnels at the base of the rock wall until this undercutting destabilizes the structure so much that blocks or columns of basalt fall off from above, creating the amphitheater below.

This explanation has not been corroborated by the Caltech team's observations, for two reasons. First, there is no evidence of undercutting, even though there are existing springs at the base of Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon. Second, undercutting should leave large boulders in place at the foot of the canyon, at least until they are dissolved or carried away by groundwater. "These blocks are too big to move by spring flow, and there's not enough time for the groundwater to have dissolved them away," Lamb explains, "which means that large floods are needed to move them out. To make a canyon, you have to erode the canyon headwall, and you also have to evacuate the material that collapses in."

That leaves waterfall erosion during a large flood event as the only remaining candidate for the canyon formation that occurred in Malad Gorge, the Caltech team concludes.

No water flows over the top of Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon today. But even a single incident of overland water flow occurring during an unusually large flood event could pluck away and topple boulders from the columnar basalt, taking advantage of the vertical fracturing already present in the volcanic rock. A flood of this magnitude could also carry boulders downstream, leaving behind the amphitheater canyons we see today without massive boulder piles at their bottoms and with no existing watercourses.

Additional evidence that at some point in the past water flowed over the plateaus near Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon are the presence of scour marks on surface rocks on the plateau above the canyons. These scour marks are evidence of the type of abrasion that occurs when a water discharge containing sediment moves overland.

Taken together, the evidence from Malad Gorge, Lamb says, suggests that "amphitheater shapes might be diagnostic of very large-scale floods, which would imply much larger water discharges and much shorter flow durations than predicted by the previous groundwater theory." Lamb points out that although groundwater sapping "is often assumed to explain the origin of amphitheater-headed canyons, there is no place on Earth where it has been demonstrated to work in columnar basalt."

Closing the case on the canyons at Malad Gorge required one further bit of information: the ages of the rock samples. This was accomplished at Caltech's Noble Gas Lab, run by Kenneth A. Farley, W. M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry and chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences.

The key to dating surface rocks on Earth is cosmic rays—very high-energy particles from space that regularly strike Earth. "Cosmic rays interact with the atmosphere and eventually with rocks at the surface, producing alternate versions of noble gas elements, or isotopes, called cosmogenic nuclides," Lamb explains. "If we know the cosmic-ray flux, and we measure the accumulation of nuclides in a certain mineral, then we can calculate the time that rock has been sitting at Earth's surface."

At the Noble Gas Lab, Farley and Mackey determined that rock samples from the heads of Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon had been exposed for the same length of time, approximately 46,000 years. If Lamb and his colleagues are correct, this is when the flood event occurred that plucked the boulders off the canyon walls, leaving the amphitheaters behind.

Further evidence supporting the team's theory can be found in Pointed Canyon. Rock samples collected along the walls of the first kilometer of the canyon show progressively more exposure in the downstream direction, suggesting that the canyon is still being carved by Wood River. Using the dates of exposure revealed in the rock samples, Lamb reconstructed the probable location of Pointed Canyon at the time of the formation of Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon. At that location, where the rock has been exposed approximately 46,000 years, the surrounding canyon walls form the characteristic U-shape of an amphitheater-headed canyon and then abruptly narrow into the point that forms the remainder of Pointed Canyon. "The same megaflood event that created Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon seems to have created Pointed Canyon," Lamb concludes. "The only difference is that the other canyons had no continuing river action, while Pointed Canyon was cut relatively slowly over the last 46,000 years by the Wood River, which is not powerful enough to topple and pluck basalt blocks from the surrounding plateau, resulting in a narrow channel rather than tall vertical headwalls."

Solving the puzzle of how amphitheater-headed canyons are created has implications reaching far beyond south-central Idaho because similar features—though some much larger—are also present on the surface of Mars. "A very popular interpretation for the amphitheater-headed canyons on Mars is that groundwater seeps out of cracks at the base of the canyon headwalls and that no water ever went over the top," Lamb says. Judging from the evidence in Idaho, however, it seems more likely that on Mars, as on Earth, amphitheater-headed canyons were created by enormous flood events, suggesting that Mars was once a very watery planet.

The paper presenting these results is entitled "Amphitheater-Headed Canyons Formed by Megaflooding at Malad Gorge, Idaho." The work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA.

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Cynthia Eller
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