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Lifespan of mountain ranges scaled by feedbacks between landsliding and erosion by rivers


An important challenge in geomorphology is the reconciliation of the high fluvial incision rates observed in tectonically active mountain ranges with the long-term preservation of significant mountain-range relief in ancient, tectonically inactive orogenic belts1,2,3. River bedrock erosion and sediment transport are widely recognized to be the principal controls on the lifespan of mountain ranges. But the factors controlling the rate of erosion4,5,6,7,8 and the reasons why they seem to vary significantly as a function of tectonic activity remain controversial. Here we use computational simulations to show that the key to understanding variations in the rate of erosion between tectonically active and inactive mountain ranges may relate to a bidirectional coupling between bedrock river incision and landslides. Whereas fluvial incision steepens surrounding hillslopes and increases landslide frequency9, landsliding affects fluvial erosion rates in two fundamentally distinct ways. On the one hand, large landslides overwhelm the river transport capacity and cause upstream build up of sediment that protects the river bed from further erosion9,10,11. On the other hand, in delivering abrasive agents to the streams4,5,6, landslides help accelerate fluvial erosion. Our models illustrate how this coupling has fundamentally different implications for rates of fluvial incision in active and inactive mountain ranges. The coupling therefore provides a plausible physical explanation for the preservation of significant mountain-range relief in old orogenic belts, up to several hundred million years after tectonic activity has effectively ceased.

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Figure 1: Landscape morphology.
Figure 2: Feedbacks between landsliding, fluvial incision and sediment transport.
Figure 3: Erosion rates and post-orogenic lifespan.


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D.L.E. acknowledges funding from the Danish Council for Independent Research under the Sapere Aude programme. M.F.K. acknowledges funding from the Carlsberg Foundation and the Villum Foundation. M.S. acknowledges funding from ARC DP110104098 and AISRF.

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D.L.E. developed the computational modelling scheme and performed the modelling. All authors contributed equally to the design of the study and the writing of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David L. Egholm.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-6, Supplementary Tables 1-2, Supplementary Methods, a Supplementary Discussion and additional references. (PDF 1300 kb)

The dynamic model landscape

The video shows the landscape of a model simulation with river incision by saltation-abrasion, bedrock landslides, and sediment transport in rivers and on hillslopes. The topography is highly dynamic, showing rapid oscillations owing to feedbacks between landsliding and river incision. The yellow colors represent alluvial sediment that is caught in the fluvial drainage system because of dams generated by landslide deposits. (MOV 9907 kb)

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Egholm, D., Knudsen, M. & Sandiford, M. Lifespan of mountain ranges scaled by feedbacks between landsliding and erosion by rivers. Nature 498, 475–478 (2013).

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