Landslide Up Close

by | 6.16.2014 at 12:31pm
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By Max Cunningham
June 9, 2014

Max 4.1

The landslide below the dark rocks in the center of this photo was discovered first in satellite images.

During the last decade, scientists have noticed an apparent rise in catastrophic events in mountain valleys as glaciers retreat and permafrost thaws. Some evidence suggests that thawing glacial valleys are responsible for enormous, fast-moving landslides that can destabilize river dams and cause other damage. Last July, my colleague Colin Stark and others at Lamont identified one such landslide in Alaska.

The idea that catastrophic processes may become more frequent as glacial valleys warm globally is a frightening one, but further information is needed to assess the threat. I came to Mount Chirripó hoping to find evidence of past landslides. Before flying here, Stark and I used high-resolution satellite images to identify potential landslide features on Mount Chirripó. On our second day in the field, Kaplan and I tried to locate them on foot.

We found our first landslide in Valle de los Conejos, a cirque valley carved into Mount Chirripó’s southern side. Apparently, we walked right by it on our previous day of fieldwork; the trees and bushes growing amid the fallen boulders provide an excellent disguise.The glacial debris blends in almost perfectly with the hillside. To highlight it, I have outlined the scarp in red where the failure occurred, but even this image, taken more than a half-mile away, is deceiving. Mike and I spent what felt like hours whacking through thick bushes to get there. You can just make out some of the large boulders in the background.

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Kaplan bushwhacks to the landslide.

From a distance I thought we could scale the landslide, but the house-sized blocks were too big to scramble over.  During the slide, boulders stacked up on each other and formed crevasses and caves that are now covered in treacherous mats of vegetation. I suspect that pumas may sleep in the caves by day if they are able to withstand the altitude.

Mike and I traipsed around the landslide, stopping at various scarps to enjoy the views. The run-out distance appears to be only about a tenth of a mile, and the boulders are densely packed. Looking down, I got the impression that the landslide created a crevasse somewhere between 60 to 100 feet in depth. When did this major failure happen in relation to deglaciation?

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Quartz sampled from the landslide debris may help us discover when the event happened.

Mike and I decided to use our CRN dating tools to find out. We made our way to several boulders on the east side of the landslide, where the rock is sedimentary, unlike the granodiorite found in the Valle de las Morrenas.  Once again, Mike and I found bits of fine-grained quartz in the rocks, indicating we can measure their Beryllium-10 levels to understand how long this landslide has been exposed to cosmic rays. Mike and I think that the extent of weathering on these boulders is a clue to the age of the landslide: For the surface of these boulders to undergo alteration, they probably sat in the same place for a long period of time. Perhaps this landslide is indeed paraglacial, a result of glacier retreat and permafrost thaw. We hope our efforts to measure CRN production here will inform us.

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