River drainage patterns in the New Zealand Alps primarily controlled by plate tectonic strain

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
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Published online


River drainage patterns sculpt terrestrial landscapes. Whether these patterns contain fingerprints of past tectonic events is debated. On the one hand, elaborate dendritic river networks always retain an invariant structure, implying that rivers will simply reorganize in response to tectonic perturbations, without long-term trace of the tectonic event. On the other hand, many rivers in active mountain belts seem to be passive features and may record long-term crustal deformation. Here we use numerical simulations, constrained by drainage patterns observed in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, to analyse the response of river basins to distributed plate tectonic strain. We find that both dynamically reorganized and passively deformed rivers coexist in the Southern Alps. Rivers on the western side of the mountain range reorganize and rapidly evolve in response to tectonic deformation. In contrast, rivers on the eastern side resist reorganization and record large-scale plate tectonic influence over timescales of tens of millions of years. We conclude that both types of river drainage pattern in the Southern Alps are primarily controlled by plate tectonic strain, implying that landscape topography can be used to reconstruct the distribution of tectonic strain within zones of continental deformation around the world.

At a glance


  1. Tectonic setting and topography of the South Island of New Zealand.
    Figure 1: Tectonic setting and topography of the South Island of New Zealand.

    a, Topography, major structures and plate tectonic setting. The Maitai Terrane (JMA, Junction Magnetic Anomaly) is offset by 480km across the Alpine Fault and curved in the north island and southern part of south island suggesting distributed deformation over a zone wider than the Alpine Fault1, 2, 23. b, Relief map of the Southern Alps with major river basins (black), main drainage divide (orange) and river orientation (blue). Eastern river basins 1–10 are transverse to the orogen close to the junction between the Hope and the Alpine Faults, and progressively rotated clockwise southwards. Western basins 11–29 maintain an orogen-perpendicular orientation from north to south.

  2. Basin deformation and reorganization in response to distributed strain in a landscape evolution model.
    Figure 2: Basin deformation and reorganization in response to distributed strain in a landscape evolution model.

    The top panels of a and b show the final configuration of rivers in the model domain after 10.8Myr of evolution with the horizontal and vertical velocity field, and spatially variable climatic conditions, which are shown in the lower panels. a, Scenario A with fault-parallel horizontal velocity. b, Scenario B also includes a perpendicular component to the horizontal velocity field. c, Example of temporal evolution of a single basin that drains to the west illustrating reorganization mechanisms of area capture along channel heads and preferential trimming at the fault for scenario B western basins. The black star and circle track two tributaries through time.

  3. Orientation of river basins in the SANZ with respect to a plate-boundary-orthogonal direction.
    Figure 3: Orientation of river basins in the SANZ with respect to a plate-boundary-orthogonal direction.

    Positive orientation values indicate clockwise rotation. The x axis is the distance between the outlet of a basin and the projection of the junction of the Hope and Alpine faults on the mountain front. The uncertainty bars represent the range of orientation defined by two equivalent river branches of a single basin (dot at bisector orientation). The continuous curve shows the prediction of basin rotation through the kinematic model described in text, and the fit to the observed orientation of the eastern basins. The best fit is obtained with a fault slip of 21mmyr−1. The grey area shows the ±5mmyr−1 range on this value.


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  1. Section of Earth Sciences and Environment, University of Geneva, Rue des Maraîchers 13, 1205 Genève, Switzerland

    • Sébastien Castelltort
  2. Department of Earth Sciences, ETH-Zürich, Sonneggstrasse 5, 8092 Zürich, Switzerland

    • Sébastien Castelltort,
    • Liran Goren,
    • Sean D. Willett,
    • Jean-Daniel Champagnac &
    • Frédéric Herman
  3. LGCA, Université Joseph Fourier de Grenoble, 38041 Grenoble, France

    • Jean Braun


S.C. and L.G. designed the analysis, completed the interpretation and wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the problem, methods, analyses and results and commented on the manuscript. L.G. performed the numerical simulations. S.D.W., L.G., F.H. and J.B. developed the numerical model DAC.

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