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The search for a topographic signature of life


Landscapes are shaped by the uplift, deformation and breakdown of bedrock and the erosion, transport and deposition of sediment. Life is important in all of these processes. Over short timescales, the impact of life is quite apparent: rock weathering, soil formation and erosion, slope stability and river dynamics are directly influenced by biotic processes that mediate chemical reactions, dilate soil, disrupt the ground surface and add strength with a weave of roots. Over geologic time, biotic effects are less obvious but equally important: biota affect climate, and climatic conditions dictate the mechanisms and rates of erosion that control topographic evolution. Apart from the obvious influence of humans, does the resulting landscape bear an unmistakable stamp of life? The influence of life on topography is a topic that has remained largely unexplored. Erosion laws that explicitly include biotic effects are needed to explore how intrinsically small-scale biotic processes can influence the form of entire landscapes, and to determine whether these processes create a distinctive topography.

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Figure 1: An explanation for the origin of ridges and valleys.
Figure 2: Shaded relief images derived from airborne laser swath mapping (ALSM) data.
Figure 3: Hillslopes on which soil formation appears to be driven entirely by abiotic processes.
Figure 4: Links among tectonics, climate, erosion and topography at convergent plate boundaries.
Figure 5: Hypothetical frequency distributions of landform properties for the present Earth and an abiotic Earth.


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Many colleagues offered advice and direction in preparation of this review, especially I. Fung, D. Schrag, N. Sleep, L. Sklar and L. Kump. A. Howard, D. Furbish, M. Power and G. Hilley gave comments on earlier drafts of the paper. M. Gabet made several suggestions. A. Kleidon shared unpublished data. N. Snyder and the NSF National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping provided the topographic data for Death Valley. Aspects of this work were supported by the NSF National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and NASA (for work in the Atacama Desert with R. Amundson).

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Dietrich, W., Perron, J. The search for a topographic signature of life. Nature 439, 411–418 (2006).

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