Geomorphic Response to Catastrophic Flooding in North-Central Pennsylvania from Tropical Storm Lee (September 2011): Intersection of Fluvial Disequilibrium and the Legacy of Logging

Publication Date




More than 25 cm of rainfall from Tropical Storm Lee (TS Lee) over 2 days in September 2011 resulted in catastrophic flooding (U.S. Geological Survey estimated recurrence interval >100 yr) on several Susquehanna River tributaries emanating from the Appalachian Plateau in north-central Pennsylvania (USA). Helicopter photography and field work were used to prepare a detailed geographic information system database of geomorphic response to the flood along ∼250 km of Loyalsock, Muncy, Lycoming, and Fishing Creeks. Unlike the response of many streams to previously described Appalachian floods, fluvial response to the TS Lee flood was extensive in these gravel bed streams, characterized by (1) large-scale avulsions and chute development on the insides of meanders, (2) erosion of gravel from channel margins and transport downstream in large pulses, (3) headwater landslides and alluvial fan activation, (4) major floodplain erosion and deposition, and (5) breaching of anthropogenic berms and reconnection of the main channel to prehistoric floodplain anabranches. Geomorphic work, expressed both as bedload sediment transport and landform change (geomorphic effectiveness) was significant: as much as 55,000 m3/km of gravel was transported within a single watershed. Landform changes included erosion of chutes (to 500 m long), gravel bars (point bars and mid-channel bars), channel widening (in places >100%), and reoccupation of former multithread channels previously cut off from the mainstem by historic channel straightening, berming, and dredging.

Streams in this region appear to be in a phase of disequilibrium largely in response to major shifts in sediment delivery from their watersheds caused by historic logging and a series of floods ∼100 yr ago. Widespread clearcutting (A.D. 1850–1920) contributed large volumes of sediment to these streams. Dendrogeomorphic data bracket a period of aggradation of these logging legacy sediments between the 1870s and 1930s, creating a significant low terrace inset into Pleistocene outwash and glacial sediments. Recent floods in 1972, 1996, 2004, and especially TS Lee in 2011 initiated an enhanced phase of disequilibrium as a geomorphic threshold was crossed, resulting in widespread erosion of logging legacy sediments deposited nearly 100 yr ago. The change in sediment load (increased coarse bedload) as a result of widespread bed and bank erosion caused a change in channel pattern from single thread to multithread. Pattern change was facilitated by aggradation of gravel bars above floodplain elevations which promoted avulsion and chute formation. Based on preflood and postflood geomorphic mapping, >6,700,000 m3 of gravel were mobilized during the flood across 4 watersheds. Mobilization of logging legacy sediment is occurring as pulses of gravel move downstream episodically.

This paper demonstrates the important influences of drainage basin morphometry (e.g., ruggedness number) and fluvial history (land use and geomorphic) in understanding current channel dynamics and basin response to heavy precipitation and flooding. The findings presented herein have significant implications for watershed management and planning. Streams in this region are likely to remain in a protracted phase of readjustment for many decades as complex response to historical land-use change continues. In this disequilibrium phase most significant rainfall events will likely trigger additional readjustment and channel change.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License




Geology & Environmental Geosciences