Alluvial fans along the coastal Atacama Desert - landforms, processes, and evolution

  • Schwemmfächer entlang der Küste der Atacama-Wüste - Landformen, Prozesse und Entwicklung

Walk, Janek; Lehmkuhl, Frank (Thesis advisor); Brückner, Helmut (Thesis advisor)

Aachen (2020)
Dissertation / PhD Thesis

Dissertation, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, 2020


Alluvial fans represent the dominant sedimentary systems within and along the margins of mountain regions where laterally confined, sediment-rich flows enter open plains or broader valleys. Successive aggradation creates a fan-shaped depositional landform featuring a complex internal architecture. Due to the direct coupling of alluvial fans to the source area, they are principally simple sediment routing systems and ideal archives to study local fluvial morphodynamics but also long-term landscape responses to (palaeo) climatic variability, tectonic activity, and base level changes. In most settings, however, it remained challenging to decipher these allogenic environmental controls. Along the coast of the hyperarid Atacama Desert in northern Chile (20.5°S-25.5°S), alluvial fans radiate from the steep western flank of the Coastal Cordillera, presenting the source area, over the narrow Coastal Plain, the sink. In the distal part, the coastal alluvial fans (CAF) interact with the marine environment, which forms an additional external control. In contrast to the last major alluvial activity in the interior Atacama Desert, dating back to the Miocene to Pliocene, the onset of CAF formation is much younger and CAF show a higher recent activity. However, the timing of their activity beyond the Holocene has barely received any attention yet. A major influence of climate on CAF formation has been proposed for a small part of the coastal Atacama; however, the interplay of climate, lithology, and tectonics in conjunction with strong, marine-driven base-level changes is still insufficiently explored. Hence, the CAF of the Atacama Desert are investigated in this comprehensive study as archives for recent to past sediment transport dynamics under coupled allogenic forcing. For this purpose, the CAF morphology as well as sedimentology, primary processes constructing the alluvial fans, relationships between the CAF systems’ hydromorphometry and the prevailing environmental characteristics (climate, tectonics, and source-area lithology), and the timing of their Quaternary evolution were assessed. While detailed field studies were concentrated on five key sites, overarching large-scale analyses of regional climatic and geologic geodata as well as geomorphometric analyses included 123 CAF systems.Results reveal that alluvial fans along the coastal Atacama Desert are in an overall advanced evolutionary state featuring voluminous aggradation and in approximately half of all cases also significant to deep entrenchment. Detailed geomorphological mapping and morphometric terrain analysis at the CAF complex Guanillos (21.97°S), enabled - besides the introduction of a multi-phase morphostratigraphic model comprising the fan’s prograde evolution and successive incision - to infer debris flows as the main depositional process in this hyperarid coastal setting. The morphological evidence is further supported by the CAF stratigraphy described in detail at five sites. Secondarily, hyperconcentrated flows were found to contribute to a large extent to the CAF aggradation. In contrast, sheetfloods are of negligible relevance, which is in accordance with previous sedimentological observations. Functional relationships between hydromorphometric catchment characteristics, the frequency of extreme precipitation events, fault density, and source-area lithology suggest a primarily climatic control on the CAF morphodynamics. Mostly restricted to catchments draining the western flank of the Coastal Cordillera, a higher frequency of precipitation extremes correlates positively with morphometric parameters indicating an increased susceptibility to debris flows (mean catchment gradient and basin relief ratio) as well as geomorphic catchment maturity. Spatial trends in catchment hydromorphometry and maturity reflect the major climatic source of rainfall events capable of creating effective sediment mobilization: frontal systems and cut-off lows which originate from the extratropical austral Westerlies and become increasingly rare towards the north. Furthermore, an increasing density of Loma vegetation can be observed towards higher latitudes so that possible feedback mechanisms of biota on sediment supply need to be considered for the southern CAF catchments. The relationships between climate and CAF morphodynamics are only seen in the geomorphometry of catchments characterized by a high degree of sediment connectivity and generally do not cut back far into the hinterlands of the Coastal Cordillera. Reflecting the strongly reduced influence of the Pacific precipitation source to the E, this sharp longitudinal climatic transition is governed by the orographic effect of the Coastal Cordillera’s steep topography. In contrast, source-area lithology could be excluded as a major controlling factor for CAF depositional processes along the coastal Atacama Desert. An important indirect influence of tectonics, however, can be seen in the long-term (neo)tectonic activity within the Coastal Cordillera, which in turn shapes catchments and controls the topography. CAF aggradation - those in the Late Pleistocene dated within the context of this study - shows peaks during the marine isotope stage (MIS) 5 (95-80 ka), MIS 3 (60-45 ka), Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) (35-20 ka), and Holocene (⪅7 ka). Those phases all coincide with more humid periods related to (i) warmer sea-surface temperatures (SST) of the SE Pacific provoking a southward shift of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) in MIS 5 and parts of MIS 3, (ii) a weakening of the SE Pacific anticyclone and equatorward shift of the austral Westerlies during the LGM, and (iii) the onset of the modern El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the Middle Holocene characterized by positive SST during El Niño, which in turn favours convection of northward reaching atmospheric humidity and thus torrential rainfall. The coupling of CAF palaeoactivity to wetter phases implies that alluvial fan aggradation in the hyperarid Atacama Desert is primarily controlled by climate and is strongly transport-limited. At the CAF key site Botija (24.57°S), incision of the main channel occurred since the late MIS 3 to early LGM and can be interpreted as either a climate-driven effect due to the northward shift of the Southern Westerlies in MIS 2, the result of sudden base-level fall due to short-term megathrust earthquakes, or simply internal alluvial fan dynamics governed by autogenic controls. Regarding the onset of Pleistocene CAF formation, it cannot be excluded that remnants older than MIS 5 are buried under the younger, dated deposits. Further geochronological data along the coast is thus required to check, whether the widespread geomorphic changes of the CAF are a systematic response to an allogenic environmental control. Nonetheless, the CAF represent crucial archives for the Late Quaternary palaeoclimate of the hyperarid Atacama Desert, which preserve the climatic changes driven by the SE Pacific Ocean to a much higher degree than the interior alluvial fans. Besides the dominant control of climate on CAF evolution, tectonic impulses exert a significant short-term influence by sudden large-magnitude earthquakes changing the CAF base-level independently of eustatic sea-level changes. Against this background, mean Late Quaternary coastal uplift rates between ~0.06 and ~0.57 m/ka were derived from the datings of the elevated marine terraces.