Research ArticleGEOLOGY

Scale-dependent erosional patterns in steady-state and transient-state landscapes

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Science Advances  27 Sep 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 9, e1701683
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701683

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Landscape topography is the expression of the dynamic equilibrium between external forcings (for example, climate and tectonics) and the underlying lithology. The magnitude and spatial arrangement of erosional and depositional fluxes dictate the evolution of landforms during both statistical steady state (SS) and transient state (TS) of major landscape reorganization. For SS landscapes, the common expectation is that any point of the landscape has an equal chance to erode below or above the landscape median erosion rate. We show that this is not the case. Afforded by a unique experimental landscape that provided a detailed space-time recording of erosional fluxes and by defining the so-called E50-area curve, we reveal for the first time that there exists a hierarchical pattern of erosion. Specifically, hillslopes and fluvial channels erode more rapidly than the landscape median erosion rate, whereas intervening parts of the landscape in terms of upstream contributing areas (colluvial regime) erode more slowly. We explain this apparent paradox by documenting the dynamic nature of SS landscapes—landscape locations may transition from being a hillslope to being a valley and then to being a fluvial channel due to ridge migration, channel piracy, and small-scale landscape dynamics through time. Under TS conditions caused by increased precipitation, we show that the E50-area curve drastically changes shape during landscape reorganization. Scale-dependent erosional patterns, as observed in this study, suggest benchmarks in evaluating numerical models and interpreting the variability of sampled erosional rates in field landscapes.

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