Protracted river recovery from medieval earthquakes
2 GFZ German Research Centre for GEosciences, Potsdam, Germany
3 Institute of Geological Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany
4 Département de Géographie, Université Paris-Diderot-SPC, Paris, France
5 Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf, Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology, Dresden, Germany
6 Department of Civil Engineering, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal
P 5.8 in Geomorphological risk assessment and geodynamic view of the earth’s surface
Mountain rivers respond to strong earthquakes by rapidly aggrading to accommodate excess sediment delivered by co-seismic landslides. Detailed sediment budgets indicate that rivers need several years to decades to recover from such seismic disturbances, depending on how recovery is defined. We examine several proxies of river recovery around Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city. We use a freshly exhumed cohort of floodplain trees in growth position as a geomorphic marker of rapid sedimentation that formed a fan covering 148 km2 in a Lesser Himalayan basin with tens of meters of debris. Radiocarbon dates of these buried trees are consistent with those of nearby valley fills linked to major Himalayan earthquakes during medieval times, and offer benchmarks for estimating average rates of sedimentation and re-incision. We combine high-resolution digital elevation data, geodetic field surveys, aerial photos documenting historic channel changes, estimated removed volumes, calculated long-term denudation rates, and dated re-exhumed tree trunks to reconstruct dated geomorphic marker surfaces. The volumes of sediment lost from these surfaces require net sediment yields of up to 4200 t km–2 yr–1, averaged over some 650 years since the last inferred earthquake. These rates exceed density-adjusted rates of catchment-wide denudation derived from concentrations of cosmogenic 10Be in river sands. The lithological composition of active channel-bed load differs from that of local bedrock, confirming that rivers are still mainly evacuating medieval valley fills, locally incising at rates of 160 to 220 mm yr–1 in the past 50 years. Pronounced knickpoints and epigenetic gorges at tributary junctions add to the picture of a protracted fluvial response; only the distal portions of the earthquake-derived sediment wedge have been incised to near their base. Our results challenge the notion that mountain rivers recover from earthquakes within years to decades. The valley fills around Pokhara document that even highly erosive Himalayan rivers need at least centuries to millennia to adjust. Our results motivate some rethinking of post-seismic hazard appraisals and infrastructural planning in mountain regions.