The scarcity of long-term hydrological data is a barrier to reliably determining the likelihood of floods becoming more frequent and/or intense in a warmer world. Lake sediments preserve characteristic event layers, offering the potential to develop widely distributed and unique chronologies of historical floods. Inferring flood magnitude remains a greater challenge, previously overcome in part by analyzing sharply laminated polar or alpine sequences. Here we demonstrate an approach to obtain flood frequency and magnitude data from an unexploited resource, the largely visually homogeneous, organic sediments that typify most temperate lakes. The geochemical composition and end-member modeling of sediment trap and adjacent short core particle size data for Brotherswater (northwest England) discriminates the signature of infrequent, coarse-grained flood deposits from seasonal and longer-term allogenic (enhanced discharge and sediment supply during winter) and autogenic (summer productivity, thermal mixing) depositional processes. Comparing the paleoflood reconstruction to local river discharges shows that hydrological thresholds censor event signature preservation, with 4 yr recurrence intervals detectable in delta-proximal sediments declining to 9 yr in the lake center. Event threshold (discharge) and process characterization are essential precursors to discerning flood magnitude from sediment archives. Implementation of our approach in globally prevalent temperate lakes offers a vast, unique repository of long-term hydrological data for hydrologists, climate modelers, engineers, and policy makers addressing future flood risks.
- Received 13 August 2015.
- Revision received 29 October 2015.
- Accepted 31 October 2015.
- © Geological Society of America
Gold Open Access: This paper is published under the terms of the CC-BY license.