Hydraulic Reconstructions of Outburst Floods on Earth and Mars

Monday, 15 December 2014: 8:45 AM
Mathieu Gaetan Andre Lapotre and Michael P Lamb, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States
Large outburst floods on Earth and Mars have carved bedrock canyons in basalt that often have steep sidewalls and amphitheater heads, suggesting erosion by waterfall retreat and block toppling. Two paleohydraulic methods are typically used to reconstruct flood discharges. The first is based on the discharge required to move sediment, which requires rare grain-size data and is necessarily a lower bound. The second assumes bedrock canyons are entirely inundated, which likely greatly overestimates the discharge of canyon carving floods. Here we explore a third hypothesis that canyon width is an indicator of flood discharge. For example, we expect that for large floods relative to the canyon width, the canyon will tend to widen as water spills over and erodes the canyon sidewalls. In contrast, small floods, relative to the canyon size will tend to focus flow into the canyon head, resulting in a narrowing canyon. To test this hypothesis, we need data on how outburst floods focus water into canyons across a wide range of canyon and flood sizes. To fill this data gap, we performed a series of numerical simulations solving the 2D depth-averaged shallow water equations for turbulent flow. We analyzed the effect of five non-dimensional parameters on the shear stress and discharge distributions around head and sidewalls of canyons of different sizes. The Froude number of the flood has the greatest effect on the distribution of shear stresses and discharges around the canyon rim; higher Froude numbers lead to less convergence of the flow towards the canyon, and thus to lower shear stresses (and discharges) on the sides of the canyon. Simulation results show that canyons of constant width were likely carved by floods within a relatively narrow range of discharges. The range of discharges is sensitive to the Froude number and size of blocks that are toppled at the canyon head, both of which can be estimated from field and remotely sensed data. Example applications on Earth and Mars show that our flood reconstructions yield canyon-carving discharges larger than inferred from incipient motion thresholds, and often dramatically smaller than inferred from assuming complete canyon inundation.