In situ low-relief landscape formation as a result of river network disruption

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Abstract

Landscapes on Earth retain a record of the tectonic, environmental and climatic history under which they formed. Landscapes tend towards an equilibrium in which rivers attain a stable grade that balances the tectonic production of elevation and with hillslopes that attain a gradient steep enough to transport material to river channels. Equilibrium low-relief surfaces are typically found at low elevations, graded to sea level. However, there are many examples of high-elevation, low-relief surfaces, often referred to as relict landscapes1,2, or as elevated peneplains3. These do not grade to sea level and are typically interpreted as uplifted old landscapes, preserving former, more moderate tectonic conditions4. Here we test this model of landscape evolution through digital topographic analysis of a set of purportedly relict landscapes on the southeastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau, one of the most geographically complex, climatically varied and biologically diverse regions of the world. We find that, in contrast to theory, the purported surfaces are not consistent with progressive establishment of a new, steeper, river grade, and therefore they cannot necessarily be interpreted as a remnant of an old, low relief surface. We propose an alternative model, supported by numerical experiments, in which tectonic deformation has disrupted the regional river network, leaving remnants of it isolated and starved of drainage area and thus unable to balance tectonic uplift. The implication is that the state of low relief with low erosion rate is developing in situ, rather than preserving past erosional conditions.

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Figure 1: The study area of the ‘Three Rivers’.
Figure 2: River courses and χ-plots for region of low-relief, ‘relict’ landscape CJ14 in the Yangtze drainage.
Figure 3: Numerical model of landscape evolution governed by stream-power river incision in response to tectonic uplift and horizontal strain using the Divide and Capture (DAC) landscape evolution model29.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C.-Y. Chen for discussion and assistance with digital elevation model analysis. Reviews by D. Burbank improved the manuscript.

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Authors

Contributions

S.D.W. conceived and directed the project. R.Y. analysed the topography and precipitation. R.Y. and L.G. constructed the numerical model. All authors contributed to interpretation and writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rong Yang.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Mean annual precipitation for study area derived from Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission data.

See Methods.

Extended Data Figure 2 Yangtze, Salween and Mekong River χ-plots.

Plots are constructed using a range of m/n from 0.3 to 0.6 to test the variability of χ-profiles with concavity. The trunk rivers are highlighted in black. We use a value of 0.45 for the χ analysis, following the methodology described in ref. 21.

Extended Data Figure 3 River courses and χ-plots for the region of low-relief landscape LCJ3 in the Mekong drainage.

See Fig. 1 for location. a, Perspective view of the landscape. The low-relief surface is shaded and the courses of ten rivers are keyed by colour and number to the χ-plots in b. b, Graph of χ-plots for rivers shown in a. Inset shows same data, scaled to include the full Mekong. Red tributaries are primarily interior to the low-relief landscape; blue rivers drain the exterior. Bold black river is the trunk river with flow direction indicated by the white arrow. The yellow point in each frame shows the downstream point common to all rivers. Triangles indicate prominent inflections in profiles and their locations in a. Interior rivers (1, 2, 3) are all shifted towards lower erosion rates. Exterior rivers are all shifted towards higher erosion rates. Tributary 9 appears to include a recent headwater capture. The absence of common form to the χ-plots indicates no common uplift history. The independence of individual catchments suggests variance is due to changing catchment area.

Extended Data Figure 4 River courses and χ-plots for the region of low-relief landscape NJ2 in the Salween drainage.

See Fig. 1 for location. Figure format as in Extended Data Fig. 3. a, Perspective view of the landscape. The low-relief surface is shaded and the courses of ten rivers are keyed by colour and number to the χ-plots in b. b, Graph of χ-plots for rivers shown in a. This surface is arguably part of the Tibetan Plateau proper and χ-values are nearly as large as the trunk river. Interior rivers (1, 2, 3) are all shifted into the area-loss field, although they are arguably not significantly different from the main stem. Tributary 4 includes a recent capture. Tributaries 5–10 are shifted into the area-gain field. Tributaries 6 and 7 might include captured reaches. Numbers in parentheses are erosion rates derived from 10Be concentrations16 or from thermochronometry (in italics)18 and indicate a fivefold increase in erosion rate in exterior basin 8, relative to interior basins.

Extended Data Figure 5 River courses and χ-plots for the region of low-relief landscape CJ3 in the Yangtze drainage.

See Fig. 1 for location. Figure format as in Extended Data Fig. 3. a, Perspective view of the landscape. The low-relief surface is shaded and the courses of 15 rivers are keyed by colour and number to the χ-plots in b. b, Graph of χ-plots for rivers shown in a. Rivers 1–5 are shifted into the area-loss field, and may have been captured given their steep, common lower reach. Remaining rivers are either in equilibrium or are shifted into the area-gain field, although all rivers in this area have a lower reach steeper than the trunk of the Yangtze. Unique to this low-relief surface, we analysed tributaries with two, independent, common confluence points. Tributaries 11–15 have a common confluence independent of tributaries 1–10, so there is potential for different base level control on each set. In addition, this area is subject to anomalous uplift associated with the Gonga Shan massif33. These tributaries have been illustrated in grey in b. Numbers in parentheses are erosion rates derived from 10Be concentrations17 and indicate rates in the exterior draining rivers one to two orders of magnitude higher than in the interior. This is consistent with the difference in slope of the χ-plots and migration of the intervening divide.

Extended Data Figure 6 River courses and χ-plots for the region of low-relief landscape CJ8 in the Yangtze drainage.

See Fig. 1 for location. Figure format as in Extended Data Fig. 3. a, Perspective view of the landscape. The low-relief surface is shaded and the courses of 14 rivers are keyed by colour and number to the χ-plots in b. b, Graph of χ-plots for rivers shown in a. Rivers 1–5 are shifted into the area-loss field, but do not show evidence of recent capture. Remaining rivers are either in equilibrium or are shifted into the area-gain field.

Extended Data Figure 7 River courses and χ-plots for the region of low-relief landscape CJ10 in the Yangtze drainage.

See Fig. 1 for location. Figure format as in Extended Data Fig. 3. a, Perspective view of the landscape. The low-relief surface is shaded and the courses of 15 rivers are keyed by colour and number to the χ-plots in b. b, Graph of χ-plots for rivers shown in a. Rivers 1–3 are shifted into the area-loss field, and may have been captured given their steep, common lower reach. This interpretation would include rivers 4 and 5. Remaining rivers are either in equilibrium or are shifted into the area-gain field.

Extended Data Figure 8 River courses and χ-plots for the region of low-relief landscape CJ12 in the Yangtze drainage.

See Fig. 1 for location. Figure format as in Extended Data Fig. 3. a, Perspective view of the landscape. The low-relief surface is shaded and the courses of nine rivers are keyed by colour and number to the χ-plots in b. b, Graph of χ-plots for rivers shown in a. Rivers 1–5 are shifted into the area-loss field. Tributaries 2, 3 and 7 show evidence of recent capture. Tributaries 6, 8 and 9 are shifted into the area gain field.

Extended Data Figure 9 River courses and χ-plots for the region of low-relief landscape LCJ2 in the Mekong drainage.

See Fig. 1 for location. Figure format as in Extended Data Fig. 3. a, Perspective view of the landscape. The low-relief surface is shaded and the courses of nine rivers are keyed by colour and number to the χ-plots in b. b, Graph of χ-plots for rivers shown in a. Rivers 1 and 2 are shifted into the area-loss field. Tributaries 7 and 8 indicate recent capture. Tributaries 3–6 are shifted into the area-gain field. Numbers in parentheses are erosion rates derived from 10Be concentrations16 or from thermochronometry (in italics)19 and indicate rates much higher in exterior basin 9 relative to the interior.

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Supplementary information

Landscape evolution model of continental indentation

Landscape evolution initiates from a near-steady state landscape, subjected to a horizontal strain rate field simulating indentation of rigid blocks. River network and erosion rate are mapped over domain as a function of time. See Methods for model details. Upper and lower halves of the model can be regarded as independent realizations of a corner indentation problem as proposed for the TRR. Note increase in erosion rate variance with large areas of low erosion rate generated and maintained by loss of drainage area. (MOV 27572 kb)

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Yang, R., Willett, S. & Goren, L. In situ low-relief landscape formation as a result of river network disruption. Nature 520, 526–529 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14354

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