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Geomorphological impact, hydraulics and watershed- lake connectivity during extreme floods in mountain areas: The 1959 Vega de Tera dam failure, NW Spain

Abstract : Dam-failure floods typically involve greater peak discharge than the largest meteorological flood at a basin. Determining the geomorphic effectiveness of extreme flooding caused by a breach mechanism provides insight into the role of flood scale on the resulting processes and landforms. Here, we present a geomorphological and hydraulic analysis of the 1959 Vega de Tera (NW Spain) dam-break flood, a worldwide notable dam-failure incident that released a flow of 7.8 106 m3 that caused the death of 144 people at Ribadelago before reaching Lake Sanabria (9 km down valley). This watershed-lake connection provides a comprehensive analysis of an extreme sediment delivery event in the context of a millennial long lake depositional record. One-dimensional unsteady flow computation shows a peak flow hydrograph attenuating from 13,000 m3 s-1 to 5150 m3 s-1, that reached a maximum flow depth of 34 m and velocity of 30 ms-1. Spatial variation of erosional and depositional landforms are related with local flow hydraulics: i) in steep sectors flow regime was supercritical (shear value up to 11,200 Pa) and produced up to 30 m deep bedrock channel erosion; ii) at the boundary of steep and flatten sectors, transition to subcritical regime generated large plunge pools (up to 6000 m2 and 15.2 m in depth); iii) in low-gradient sectors low shear stress gave rise to depositional landforms, namely gravel bars with dam boulders up to 3 m long, and a debris cone with coarse gravel and expansion sand bars. The depositional landforms amount for a total volume of ca 2.11 · 106 m3 in the Tera valley (37% in the gorge and 63% in the floodplain). The dense, energetic sediment-laden flow reached Lake Sanabria forming a debris cone close to the mouth and caused an underwater hyperpycnal current, depositing a ~10 cm-thick sandy-silt layer all over the two distal subbasins. The estimated volume of the deposited fine sediments in the lake ranges between 200,000 and 368,000 m3. The lake record shows that this was the largest flood in the basin during the Holocene. Previous to the dam break, the sediment connectivity between the Sanabria watershed and the lake was limited because of the "staircase" topography and the presence of small glacial depressions filled with sediments since deglaciation. Even during the flood, the great majority of the sediments were deposited along the flood pathway, and only a small percentage (10-20%) reached the lake. Although the hydraulics of the Tera River were not changed after the flood, the newly formed pools in the watershed could diminish the connectivity between the river and the lake in the future, as some new sedimentation areas (pools) were generated acting as natural dams and thus decreasing sediment input to the lake.
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Submitted on : Monday, June 27, 2022 - 4:44:43 PM
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Javier Santos-González, Amelia Gómez-Villar, Rosa Blanca González-Gutiérrez, Juan Pablo Corella, Gerardo Benito, et al.. Geomorphological impact, hydraulics and watershed- lake connectivity during extreme floods in mountain areas: The 1959 Vega de Tera dam failure, NW Spain. Geomorphology, 2021, 375, ⟨10.1016/j.geomorph.2020.107531⟩. ⟨insu-03706459⟩

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