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Volume 22, issue 6 | Copyright
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 22, 3493-3513, 2018
© Author(s) 2018. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 28 Jun 2018

Research article | 28 Jun 2018

The temporally varying roles of rainfall, snowmelt and soil moisture for debris flow initiation in a snow-dominated system

Karin Mostbauer1, Roland Kaitna1, David Prenner1, and Markus Hrachowitz2 Karin Mostbauer et al.
  • 1Institute of Mountain Risk Engineering, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria
  • 2Water Resources Section, Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Delft University of Technology, Delft, the Netherlands

Abstract. Debris flows represent frequent hazards in mountain regions. Though significant effort has been made to predict such events, the trigger conditions as well as the hydrologic disposition of a watershed at the time of debris flow occurrence are not well understood. Traditional intensity-duration threshold techniques to establish trigger conditions generally do not account for distinct influences of rainfall, snowmelt, and antecedent moisture. To improve our knowledge on the connection between debris flow initiation and the hydrologic system at a regional scale, this study explores the use of a semi-distributed conceptual rainfall–runoff model, linking different system variables such as soil moisture, snowmelt, or runoff with documented debris flow events in the inner Pitztal watershed, Austria. The model was run on a daily basis between 1953 and 2012. Analysing a range of modelled system state and flux variables at days on which debris flows occurred, three distinct dominant trigger mechanisms could be clearly identified. While the results suggest that for 68% (17 out of 25) of the observed debris flow events during the study period high-intensity rainfall was the dominant trigger, snowmelt was identified as the dominant trigger for 24% (6 out of 25) of the observed debris flow events. In addition, 8% (2 out of 25) of the debris flow events could be attributed to the combined effects of low-intensity, long-lasting rainfall and transient storage of this water, causing elevated antecedent soil moisture conditions. The results also suggest a relatively clear temporal separation between the distinct trigger mechanisms, with high-intensity rainfall as a trigger being limited to mid- and late summer. The dominant trigger in late spring/early summer is snowmelt. Based on the discrimination between different modelled system states and fluxes and, more specifically, their temporally varying importance relative to each other, this exploratory study demonstrates that already the use of a relatively simple hydrological model can prove useful to gain some more insight into the importance of distinct debris flow trigger mechanisms. This highlights in particular the relevance of snowmelt contributions and the switch between mechanisms during early to mid-summer in snow-dominated systems.

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Short summary
Debris flows represent a severe hazard in mountain regions and so far remain difficult to predict. We applied a hydrological model to link not only precipitation, but also snowmelt, antecedent soil moisture, etc. with debris flow initiation in an Alpine watershed in Austria. Our results highlight the value of this more holistic perspective for developing a better understanding of debris flow initiation.
Debris flows represent a severe hazard in mountain regions and so far remain difficult to...