A new Approach to Estimating Hazard posed by Debris Flows in the Westfjords of Iceland

Research areas:
  • Susan Conway
  • A. Decaulne
  • M. R. Balme
  • J. B. Murray
  • M. C. Towner
The aim of this study is to improve the assessment of hazard posed by debris flows to the people and settlements of Northwest Iceland by studying very recent examples from above the town of Ísafjörður and other nearby localities. Debris flows are a recognised hazard in the region: above Ísafjörður, they occur with particularly high frequency and have appreciable volumes (up to 14 000 m3). We have used airborne laser altimeter (LiDAR) and differential Global Positioning System (GPS) data to produce isopach maps of flows that occurred in 1999, 2007, and 2008. Our data show that these flows begin depositing at higher slope gradients and are also more mobile than hillslope debris flows reported by other authors. Above a 19° slope, erosion is initiated independent of the distance along the flowpath. Using the isopach maps and associated field observations, we have found a relationship between ground slope and patterns in deposition volume. We have used this finding as a basis for an empirical model that enables an estimate of the total travel distance and final thickness of future debris flows to be calculated. This has enabled us to identify areas of the town which are at risk; some of these are not obvious without this analysis. This model is notable for its simplicity, which allows future debris flow characteristics to be predicted without the need to determine the precise fluid dynamic parameters of the flow such as viscosity and velocity, which are required to implement more complex models.