Letter | Published:

A signature of transience in bedrock river incision rates over timescales of 104–107 years

Nature volume 505, pages 391394 (16 January 2014) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Measured rates of river incision into bedrock are commonly interpreted as proxies for rates of rock uplift (see refs 1 and 2, for example) and indices of the strength of climatic forcing of erosion over time (see refs 3 and 4, for example). This approach implicitly assumes that river incision rates are in equilibrium with external forcings over a wide range of timescales. Here we directly test this assumption by examining the temporal scaling of bedrock river incision from 155 independent measurements of river incision compiled from 14 sites. Of these sites, 11 exhibit a negative power-law dependence of bedrock river incision rate on measurement interval, a relationship that is apparent over timescales of 104–107 years and is independent of tectonic and geomorphic setting. Thus, like rates of sediment accumulation5, rates of river incision into bedrock exhibit non-steady-state behaviour even over very long measurement intervals. Non-steady-state behaviour can be explained by episodic hiatuses in river incision triggered by alluvial deposition, if such hiatuses have a heavy-tailed length distribution6. Regardless of its cause, the dependence of incision rate on measurement interval complicates efforts to infer tectonic or climatic forcing from changes in rates of river incision over time or from comparison of rates computed over different timescales.

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Acknowledgements

This study was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (EAR-1049889). We thank J. Kirchner, B. Crosby and K. Ferrier for discussion and comments that improved the manuscript.

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Affiliations

  1. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA

    • Noah J. Finnegan
  2. Division of Hydrologic Sciences, Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada 89512, USA

    • Rina Schumer
  3. Department of Integrative Biology, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Seth Finnegan

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Contributions

N.J.F. and S.F. compiled the datasets and performed the statistical analyses, R.S. provided guidance on the theory of stochastic processes, and N.J.F. wrote the paper with input from the other authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Noah J. Finnegan.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12913

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