The beaver meadow complex revisited – the role of beavers in post-glacial floodplain development

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We evaluate the validity of the beaver-meadow complex hypothesis, used to explain the deposition of extensive fine sediment in broad, low-gradient valleys. Previous work establishes that beaver damming forms wet meadows with multi-thread channels and enhanced sediment storage, but the long-term geomorphic effects of beaver are unclear. We focus on two low-gradient broad valleys, Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park, in Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado, USA). Both valleys experienced a dramatic decrease in beaver population in the past century and provide an ideal setting for determining whether contemporary geomorphic conditions and sedimentation are within the historical range of variability of valley bottom processes. We examine the geomorphic significance of beaver-pond sediment by determining the rates and types of sedimentation since the middle Holocene and the role of beaver in driving floodplain evolution through increased channel complexity and fine sediment deposition. Sediment analyses from cores and cutbanks indicate that 33–50% of the alluvial sediment in Beaver Meadows is ponded and 28–40% was deposited in-channel; in Moraine Park 32–41% is ponded sediment and 40–52% was deposited in-channel. Radiocarbon ages spanning 4300 years indicate long-term aggradation rates of ˜0.05 cm yr-1. The observed highly variable short-term rates indicate temporal heterogeneity in aggradation, which in turn reflects spatial heterogeneity in processes at any point in time. Channel complexity increases directly downstream of beaver dams. The increased complexity forms a positive feedback for beaver-induced sedimentation; the multi-thread channel increases potential channel length for further damming, which increases the potential area occupied by beaver ponds and the volume of fine sediment trapped. Channel complexity decreased significantly as surveyed beaver population decreased. Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park represent settings where beaver substantially influence post-glacial floodplain aggradation. These findings underscore the importance of understanding the historical range of variability of valley bottom processes, and implications for environmental restoration. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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