Hydrogeomorphic Investigation of the 2015 Atacama Floods, Northern Chile
Friday, 18 December 2015: 14:10
3020 (Moscone West)
In March 2015 unusual atmospheric conditions over the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, the driest area on Earth outside of Antarctica, produced many years worth of rainfall in a 24-hour period. The resulting sediment-rich floods caused dozens of deaths and/or disappearances, over $1 billion in estimated damage, and widespread geomorphic change. Here we describe the hydrologic and geomorphic drivers and responses to the 2015 Atacama floods, including characterization of the hydrologic forcing, water and sediment routing from source areas in the upper watershed to the outlet at the Pacific Ocean, and urban flooding impacts of this event. In a region where few direct measurements of precipitation and discharge during these events are available, we combined hydrologic and hydraulic modeling with field and aerial photograph interpretation of sediment sources and geomorphic change. A remarkable element of the flood, particularly with respect to its effects on urban areas, was its high sediment load. Despite widespread hillslope erosion in the form of rilling and gullying initiated by overland flow, sediment from these sources typically did not reach valley bottoms, and only limited, small-scale mass wasting was observed. Field observations indicated that the sediment load was primarily derived from dramatic erosion of channel bed, bank, and floodplain material (i.e., valley fill). In the coastal city of Chañaral, flooding of the Salado River produced maximum water depths over 6 m, meters-thick mud deposition in buildings and along city streets, flow velocities larger than 8 m/s, and coastal erosion. Broader implications of studying the Atacama flooding include hazard reduction, the history of copper mining and more than five decades of contamination in many of the affected watersheds, and the Atacama’s status as a terrestrial analog for Mars.