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Water erosion in the southern French Alps: Climatic and human mechanisms

, : Water erosion in the southern French Alps: Climatic and human mechanisms. CATENA 50(1): 53-85, 23 December

A large number of studies have focused on water erosion in the southern Alps because of its intensity and the high erodability affecting numerous outcrops in this region. The aim of this paper is to determine the relations between natural and human factors on the one hand, geomorphologic behaviour of hillslopes and fluvio-torrential dynamics at two time scales (geological and historical) on the other hand. This paper specially focuses on the recent weakening of torrential activity and its linkage with reforestation and rural desertion on the watersheds. Another objective is to compare these results with a rich mainly French scientific production on this theme. Experimental data on: current erosion measurements and the analysis of its processes on the one hand, and geomorphologic background of river beds and slopes, are compared and analysed using archives and the present knowledge on historical climate. It has been shown that the overexploitation of watersheds leads to an increase in soil loss, in the number and intensity of floods in alpine valleys, as well as to an enhancement of sediment transport. However, climatic changes during the Holocene and during the past millennium have resulted in changes in morphological behaviour of the hillslopes upstream and of river beds downstream. Moreover, a strong sedimentary deficit can be observed over the last three or four decades in all the Alpine massifs. The consequences of this sediment deficit are firstly an entrenchment of river beds, which threatens bridges and embankments. This recent trend is probably due to the excessive extraction of material in gravel pits and the sedimentation in the numerous dams built between 1920 and 1980 in the entire alpine range. However, the entrenchment appeared recently on non-exploited rivers; therefore, the deficit is also due to the success of the natural and artificial reforestation and torrent correction since the end of 19th century.


DOI: 10.1016/s0341-8162(02)00068-1

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