Rock glacier destabilization in the French Alps : insights from regional and local scale assessments

Abstract : As occurring to several geosystems on our planet, mountain permafrost is threatened by climate change as prolonged warming may compromise the geotechnical properties of the frozen ground. As result, increasing occurrence of rockfall activity, thermokarst formation and rock glacier acceleration was observed in the past decades. Rock glacier destabilization, a process that compromises the structural integrity of these landforms, seems to be linked to atmospheric warming, gaining interest in the past years. The destabilization, which may be triggered by warming permafrost or mechanical stress, is characterized by an anomalous acceleration of the landform and the occurrence of specific features such as cracks and crevasses on its surface. Although the occurrence of these processes is mostly transitory, determining a textit{crisis} phase of the landform, in exceptional cases it may lead the rock glacier to structural collapse.This PhD thesis provided an assessment on the occurrence and related processes of rock glacier destabilization in the French Alps. At first, the spatial occurrence of debris permafrost was assessed in order to provide the permafrost distribution map of the French Alps, a tool that was necessary to evaluate permafrost conditions at rock glaciers sites. The second step consisted in an identification of destabilized rock glaciers in the region, which was done by multiple orthoimages interpretation aimed to identify features typically observable on destabilized rock glacier. Once identified the destabilized rock glaciers it was possible to analyse the typical topographical settings in which destabilization occurs and to to spot those landforms that are susceptible to experience this phenomenon. After these efforts at the regional scale, the focus was shifted towards local scale investigations at the Lou rock glacier, a partially destabilized landform that, due to frontal failure, in August 2015 triggered a debris flow that caused significant damages to buildings. The analysis aimed to better define the circumstances of this event, focusing on preconditioning, preparatory and triggering factors and their interaction with the destabilization process.The results provided interesting insights on the issue of destabilizing rock glaciers in the region. Permafrost distribution modeling demonstrated the large extents of the periglacial zone in the region as it can be found in debris slopes above 2300 - 2900 m.a.s.l. depending upon solar exposure and regional precipitation characteristics. Rock glacier destabilization was observed on 46 landforms, i.e. the 12% of the active rock glaciers. Destabilization was found to be more likely to occur in specific local topo-climatic conditions, consisting of north facing, steep and convex slopes at the lower margins of the permafrost zone. A large number of rock glaciers currently not showing destabilization was found to be located in these conditions and suggested to be susceptible to future destabilization. As demonstrated by the Lou rock glacier analysis, destabilization was found to be a relevant phenomena in the context of permafrost hazards. At this site, rock glacier destabilization was linked to a rapid frontal advance towards a torrential gully. This process seemed to have increased the site predisposition to frontal failure as a mild rainstorm was sufficient to trigger the event.Despite methodological uncertainties, results indicated that destabilization occurrence is widespread and it may rise the hazard level of a site connected to human infrastructures. Therefore, it is suggested that, where it has been modelled and where stakes may be at risk downslope, rock glacier destabilization deserves to be more carefully investigated. In this sense further efforts should focus towards a better understanding of the destabilization process by site monitoring as well as towards a comprehensive hazard assessment linked to this phenomenon.
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Marco Marcer. Rock glacier destabilization in the French Alps : insights from regional and local scale assessments. Geography. Université Grenoble Alpes, 2018. English. ⟨NNT : 2018GREAU048⟩. ⟨tel-02145649⟩

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