Climatic and geologic controls on suspended sediment flux in the Sutlej River Valley, western Himalaya
Abstract. The sediment flux through Himalayan rivers directly impacts water quality and is important for sustaining agriculture as well as maintaining drinking-water and hydropower generation. Despite the recent increase in demand for these resources, little is known about the triggers and sources of extreme sediment flux events, which lower water quality and account for extensive hydropower reservoir filling and turbine abrasion. Here, we present a comprehensive analysis of the spatiotemporal trends in suspended sediment flux based on daily data during the past decade (2001–2009) from four sites along the Sutlej River and from four of its main tributaries. In conjunction with satellite data depicting rainfall and snow cover, air temperature and earthquake records, and field observations, we infer climatic and geologic controls of peak suspended sediment concentration (SSC) events. Our study identifies three key findings: First, peak SSC events (≥ 99th SSC percentile) coincide frequently (57–80%) with heavy rainstorms and account for about 30% of the suspended sediment flux in the semi-arid to arid interior of the orogen. Second, we observe an increase of suspended sediment flux from the Tibetan Plateau to the Himalayan Front at mean annual timescales. This sediment-flux gradient suggests that averaged, modern erosion in the western Himalaya is most pronounced at frontal regions, which are characterized by high monsoonal rainfall and thick soil cover. Third, in seven of eight catchments, we find an anticlockwise hysteresis loop of annual sediment flux variations with respect to river discharge, which appears to be related to enhanced glacial sediment evacuation during late summer. Our analysis emphasizes the importance of unconsolidated sediments in the high-elevation sector that can easily be mobilized by hydrometeorological events and higher glacial-meltwater contributions. In future climate change scenarios, including continuous glacial retreat and more frequent monsoonal rainstorms across the Himalaya, we expect an increase in peak SSC events, which will decrease the water quality and impact hydropower generation.