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Volume 24 Issue 10 (October 2014)

GSA Today

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Article, pp. 4-10 | Full Text | PDF (1.8MB)

New insights into debris-flow hazards from an extraordinary event in the Colorado Front Range

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Jeffrey A. Coe, Jason W. Kean, Jonathan W. Godt, Rex L. Baum, Eric S. Jones1, David J. Gochis2, Gregory S. Anderson3

1 U.S. Geological Survey, Denver Federal Center, MS 966, Denver, Colorado 80225, USA
2 National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80307, USA
3 Boulder Mountain Fire Protection District, Boulder, Colorado 80304, USA


Rainfall on 9–13 September 2013 triggered at least 1,138 debris flows in a 3430 km2 area of the Colorado Front Range. The historical record reveals that the occurrence of these flows over such a large area in the interior of North America is highly unusual. Rainfall that triggered the debris flows began after ~75 mm of antecedent rain had fallen, a relatively low amount compared to other parts of the United States. Most flows were triggered in response to two intense rainfall periods, one 12.5-hour-long period on 11–12 September, and one 8-hour-long period on 12 September. The maximum 10 min. intensities during these periods were 67 and 39 mm/hr. Ninety-five percent of flows initiated in canyons and on hogbacks at elevations lower than a widespread erosion surface of low slope and relief (<2600 m). These flows were on steep (>25°), predominantly south- and east-facing slopes with upslope contributing areas <3300 m2. Flows with the largest scars and longest travel distances occurred at elevations above 2600 m on steep slopes with contributing areas >3300 m2. Areal concentrations of debris flows revealed that colluvial soils formed on sedimentary rocks were more susceptible to flows than soils on crystalline rocks. This event should serve as an alert to government authorities, emergency responders, and residents in the Front Range and other interior continental areas with steep slopes. Widespread debris flows in these areas occur infrequently but may pose a greater risk than in areas with shorter return periods, because the public is typically unprepared for them.

DOI: 10.1130/GSATG214A.1.

Manuscript received 5 March 2014; accepted 5 June 2014.