SUPERSLUG: Deconstructing sediment superslugs as a legacy of extreme flows

Lead Research Organisation: Plymouth University
Department Name: Sch of Geog Earth & Environ Sciences


SUPERSLUG will push the frontiers of scientific knowledge and technical innovation to reveal new fundamental insights into the legacies of catastrophic sediment-rich flows (SRF) in mountain landscapes, such as landslides, rock-ice avalanches and glacial lake outburst floods. Catastrophic SRFs are hypothesised to become more frequent this century due to climate warming, and often affect vulnerable communities and assets in least developed countries the most. SRFs can entrain, mobilise, and deposit vast quantities of sediment, which can blanket valley floors to depths of tens of metres. The subsequent re-working and transport of these sediments by rivers can generate large-scale and fast-moving 'superslugs', which is a so-called 'legacy' impact of an SRF. Such legacy impacts are poorly understood, mostly due to observational challenges which have persisted for over a hundred years. However, improving our understanding of these impacts is of vital importance: enhanced fluvial transport of sediment following an SRF can affect flood hazard (by altering river channel bed elevation), infrastructure (e.g. by scouring bridge footings and damaging hydropower turbines), and can disrupt water quality, reducing water and energy security in regions that experience increasingly unstable and hazardous hydrological regimes.

With SUPERSLUG we seek to encourage a paradigm shift framed around our argument that the landscape legacies of catastrophic SRFs should be quantified in as much detail as an initial event. To do this we will springboard from recent UKRI-funded pilot work by our international team to develop and apply a new multi-method and widely applicable suite of tools for quantifying the geomorphological evolution of SRF-affected catchments over multi-decade timeframes that are relevant for decision makers, in turn generating new insights into the fundamental behaviour, and impacts, of sediment superslugs. We will focus on a ~150 km-long exemplar system in the Indian Himalaya that has recently experienced a catastrophic SRF; the so-called 'Chamoli disaster'. This catchment arguably represents the most data-rich landscape of its type globally and sits within an otherwise extremely data-poor region.

To deconstruct the evolution and impacts of sediment superslugs we will implement five work packages which will: (WP1) benchmark the geomorphological and sedimentological evolution of an SRF-affected system in space and time by using drone-derived observations to upscale from local- to catchment-wide observations using satellite remote sensing; (WP2) directly measure bedload motion in SRF-affected river channels using innovative wireless 'smart' cobbles, complemented with passive seismics; (WP3) develop an open-source toolkit for detecting and tracking fine-grained superslugs by leveraging cloud-based (Google Earth Engine) processing of free satellite imagery; and (WP4) integrate our novel observations from WP1-3 to upscale a powerful numerical landscape evolution-hydrodynamic model to simulate superslug mobility and the wider geomorphological evolution of our exemplar catchment. Our calibrated model, which will be a form of 'digital twin', will represent the largest of its kind and we will use it to explore catchment management decisions (e.g. HEP flushing schedules) for mitigating the worst superslug impacts. Underpinning these four WPs is a fifth WP, wherein we will adopt a Theory of Change-based approach for engaging closely with beneficiaries of this new knowledge and associated tools to translate our findings into practical outcomes and impact, including governance and disaster management professionals, hydropower operators and the wider international academic community.


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