Letter | Published:

Climatic control of bedrock river incision

Nature volume 496, pages 206209 (11 April 2013) | Download Citation


Bedrock river incision drives the development of much of Earth’s surface topography1,2,3, and thereby shapes the structure of mountain belts4 and modulates Earth’s habitability through its effects on soil erosion5, nutrient fluxes6 and global climate7. Although it has long been expected that river incision rates should depend strongly on precipitation rates, quantifying the effects of precipitation rates on bedrock river incision rates has proved difficult, partly because river incision rates are difficult to measure and partly because non-climatic factors can obscure climatic effects at sites where river incision rates have been measured8,9. Here we present measurements of river incision rates across one of Earth’s steepest rainfall gradients, which show that precipitation rates do indeed influence long-term bedrock river incision rates. We apply a widely used empirical law for bedrock river incision3,9,10,11 to a series of rivers on the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i, where mean annual precipitation ranges from 0.5 metres to 9.5 metres (ref. 12)—over 70 per cent of the global range13—and river incision rates averaged over millions of years can be inferred from the depth of river canyons and the age of the volcanic bedrock. Both a time-averaged analysis and numerical modelling of transient river incision reveal that the long-term efficiency of bedrock river incision across Kaua‘i is positively correlated with upstream-averaged mean annual precipitation rates. We provide theoretical context for this result by demonstrating that our measurements are consistent with a linear dependence of river incision rates on stream power, the rate of energy expenditure by the flow on the riverbed. These observations provide rare empirical evidence for the long-proposed coupling between climate and river incision, suggesting that previously proposed feedbacks among topography, climate and tectonics may occur.

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This study was supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We thank M. Slosberg for assistance with topographic analyses, S. Willett for comments that improved the manuscript and M. Rosener, S. Mukhopadhyay, M. Lamb, B. Mackey, J. Scheingross, J. Stock and C. Blay for field assistance and discussions. We thank the State of Hawaii Agribusiness Development Corporation, Landis Ignacio of the Kekaha Agriculture Association, the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Divisions of State Parks and of Forestry and Wildlife, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alapai and Napolis families for field access.

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    • Ken L. Ferrier

    Present address: Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138, USA.


  1. Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Ken L. Ferrier
    • , Kimberly L. Huppert
    •  & J. Taylor Perron


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K.L.F. and K.L.H. performed the topographic analyses, K.L.H. and J.T.P. conducted the channel evolution modelling, all authors conducted the field work and analysed the data and K.L.F. wrote the paper with input from the other authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ken L. Ferrier.

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