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Geomorphology of snow avalanche impact landforms in the southern Canadian Cordillera

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Snow avalanche impact landforms (SAILs) are typically elliptical-shaped depressions bounded by an arcuate ridge located at the base of avalanche paths. The geomorphology of these features is controlled by the topography of the avalanche path, the availability of unconsolidated debris in the impact area and the ability of the avalanche impacts to displace the available debris in the direction of avalanche flow. Ground-based snow avalanches move debris by bulldozing, and airborne snow avalanches move sediment by excavation on impact.

This paper reports on the geomorphology, and surface age and stability of three SAILs in the southern Canadian Cordillera. Dendrochronology and lichenometry were used to date geomorphic activity at the sites. Evidence of present SAIL stability suggests they result from episodic, high-magnitude avalanche impact events over many hundreds of years. All three landforms share common morphologies: a water-filled bowl-shaped depression distally bounded by an arcuate ridge-oriented transverse to the avalanche path. Despite sharing many attributes, field investigations revealed that the origin of each SAIL was a function of the local variations in snow avalanche path topography and availability of unconsolidated debris in the impact area. The snow avalanche path associated with the Blackhorn site has a gentle gradient, which suggests that this SAIL is a result of ground-based avalanches. The SAIL at Spoon Lake appears to be a consequence of a resistant geologic feature that focuses snow avalanches in the impact area and results in explosive excavation. The morphology of the snow avalanche track at Peyto Lake causes large snow avalanches to become airborne prior to impacting and excavating an impact pool. All three SAILs examined in this paper are historically persistent landforms and these observations support previous findings indicating that SAILs require hundreds of years to develop.
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Keywords: dendrochronologie; dendrochronology; formes de relief résultant des effets des avalanches de neige; lichenometry; lichénométrie; marmites de géants; plunge pools; snow avalanche impact landforms (SAILs)

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: University of Victoria Tree-Ring Laboratory, Department of Geography, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada V8W 3R4 2: University of Victoria Tree-Ring Laboratory, Department of Geography, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada V8W 3R4 ( ), Email:

Publication date: 2010-03-01

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