Bedload tracing in a high-sediment-load mountain stream

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Abstract

This paper reports a radiofrequency identification (RFID) tracing experiment implemented in a high-sediment-load mountain stream typical of alpine gravel-bed torrents. The study site is the Bouinenc Torrent, a tributary to the Bléone River in southeast France that drains a 38·9-km2 degraded catchment. In spring 2008, we deployed 451 tracers with b-axis ranging from 23 to 520 mm. Tracers were seeded along eight cross-sections located in the upstream part of the lowest 2·3 km of the stream. Three tracer inventories were implemented in July 2008, 2009 and 2010. Recovery rates calculated for mobile tracers declined from 78% in 2008 to 45% in 2009 and 25% in 2010. Observations of tracer displacement revealed very high sediment dispersion, with frontrunners having travelled more than 2 km only three months after their deployment. The declining recovery rate over time was interpreted as resulting from rapid dispersion rather than deep burial. We evaluated that 64% of the tracers deployed in the active channel were exported from the 2·3-km study reach three years after the onset of the tracing experiment. Travel distances were characterized by right-skewed and heavy-tailed distributions, correctly fitted by a power-law function. This supports the idea that in gravel-bed rivers with abundant sediment supply relative to transport capacity, bedload transport can be viewed as a superdiffusive sediment dispersion process. It is also shown that tracers initially deployed in the low-flow channel were characterized by a 15- to 30-fold increase of mobility compared to tracers deployed in gravel bars.

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