Understanding the high mobility of subaqueous debris flows
pp. 275-284

Submarine mass wasting in the form of glacial mudflows, river-laden debris flows, rock avalanches, sandy debris flows, outrunner blocks, or turbidity currents, reveal an extraordinary mobility, demonstrated by the very long runout distance between the source area and the final deposit, even on very gentle gradients. Laboratory experiments reveal that the dynamical behaviour of artificial debris flows depends dramatically on the claysand ratio in the experimental slurry. Artificial debris flows with high clay content, which are possibly a realistic replica of mudflows in glaciallyinfluenced areas, tend to form a thin water layer underneath the head which acts as a natural lubricant. In contrast, lubrication cannot be easily invoked for sand-rich gravity flows. Experiments show that sandy debris flows lack cohesion, and that sand settles quickly during the rapid disaggregating phase. In the present work we review the field data, experimental results gained with debris flows of various compositions, and the status of theoretical studies and numerical simulations of submarine debris flows. When dealing with debris flows that remain compact, such as clay-rich debris flows and outrunner blocks, both experiments and simulations indicate the importance of water lubrication for mobility. On the other hand, sandy debris flows are far more complicated owing to the increased importance of water penetration, disintegration, and turbulence, and these difficulties are reflected in greater intricacy of experiments and computer simulations. Thus, the problem of whether sandy debris flows may be highly mobile in the natural setting still remains elusive.