River drainage patterns sculpt terrestrial landscapes. Whether these patterns contain fingerprints of past tectonic events is debated. On the one hand, elaborate dendritic river networks always retain an invariant structure, implying that rivers will simply reorganize in response to tectonic perturbations, without long-term trace of the tectonic event. On the other hand, many rivers in active mountain belts seem to be passive features and may record long-term crustal deformation. Here we use numerical simulations, constrained by drainage patterns observed in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, to analyse the response of river basins to distributed plate tectonic strain. We find that both dynamically reorganized and passively deformed rivers coexist in the Southern Alps. Rivers on the western side of the mountain range reorganize and rapidly evolve in response to tectonic deformation. In contrast, rivers on the eastern side resist reorganization and record large-scale plate tectonic influence over timescales of tens of millions of years. We conclude that both types of river drainage pattern in the Southern Alps are primarily controlled by plate tectonic strain, implying that landscape topography can be used to reconstruct the distribution of tectonic strain within zones of continental deformation around the world.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Nature Communications Open Access 22 January 2021
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Molnar, P. et al. Continuous deformation versus faulting through the continental lithosphere of New Zealand. Science 286, 516–519 (1999).
Sutherland, R. Cenozoic bending of New Zealand basement terranes and Alpine Fault displacement. N. Z. J. Geol. Geophys. 42, 295–301 (1999).
Buck, W. R. Modes of continental lithospheric extension. J. Geophys. Res. 96, 20161–20178 (1991).
Molnar, P. & Tapponnier, P. Cenozoic tectonics of Asia: Effects of a continental collision. Science 189, 419–426 (1975).
Leitner, B., Eberhart-Phillips, D., Anderson, H. & Nabelek, J. L. A focused look at the Alpine fault, New Zealand: Seismicity, focal mechanisms, and stress observations. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 2193–2220 (2001).
Jackson, D. D., Shen, Z-k., Potter, D., Ge, X-B. & Sung, L-y. Southern California deformation. Science 277, 1621–1622 (1997).
Beavan, J. & Haines, J. Contemporary horizontal velocity and strain rate fields of the Pacific–Australian plate boundary zone through New Zealand. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 741–770 (2001).
Allen, C. R. Transcurrent faults in continental areas. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. Ser. A 258, 82–89 (1965).
Replumaz, A., Lacassin, R., Tapponnier, P. & Leloup, P. H. Large river offsets and Plio-Quaternary dextral slip rate on the Red River fault (Yunnan, China). J. Geophys. Res. 106, 819–836 (2001).
Hubert-Ferrari, A., Armijo, R., King, G., Meyer, B. & Barka, A. Morphology, displacement, and slip rates along the North Anatolian Fault, Turkey. J. Geophys. Res. 107, 2235 (2002).
Brookfield, M. E. The evolution of the great river systems of southern Asia during the Cenozoic India-Asia collision: Rivers draining southwards. Geomorphology 22, 285–312 (1998).
Hallet, B. & Molnar, P. Distorted drainage basins as markers of crustal strain east of the Himalaya. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 13697–13709 (2001).
Ramsey, L. A., Walker, R. T. & Jackson, J. Geomorphic constraints on the active tectonics of southern Taiwan. Geophys. J. Int. 170, 1357–1372 (2007).
Bishop, P. Drainage rearrangement by river capture, beheading and diversion. Prog. Phys. Geogr. 19, 449–473 (1995).
Hoorn, C., Guerrero, J., Sarmiento, G. A. & Lorente, M. A. Andean tectonics as a cause for changing drainage patterns in Miocene northern South America. Geology 23, 237–240 (1995).
Clark, M. K. et al. Surface uplift, tectonics, and erosion of eastern Tibet from large-scale drainage patterns. Tectonics 23, TC1006 (2004).
Brocard, G. et al. Reorganization of a deeply incised drainage: Role of deformation, sedimentation and groundwater flow. Basin Res. 23, 631–651 (2011).
Hovius, N. Regular spacing of drainage outlets from linear mountain belts. Basin Res. 8, 29–44 (1996).
Bonnet, S. Shrinking and splitting of drainage basins in orogenic landscapes from the migration of the main drainage divide. Nature Geosci. 2, 766–771 (2009).
Wellman, H. in The Origin of the Southern Alps Vol. 18 (eds Walcott, R. I. & Cresswell, M. M.) 13–20 (Bull. R. Soc. N. Z., 1979).
Cox, S. & Sutherland, R. in A Continental Plate Boundary. Tectonics at South Island, New Zealand Vol. 175 (eds Okaya, D., Stern, T. & Davey), F.) 19–46 (Geophysical Monographs, American Geophysical Union, 2007).
Adams, J. Contemporary uplift and erosion of the Southern Alps, New Zealand. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 91, 1–114 (1980).
Norris, R. J. in The Origin of the Southern Alps Vol. 18 (eds Walcott, R. I. & Cresswell, M. M.) 21–28 (Bull. R. Soc. N. Z., 1979).
Norris, R. J. & Cooper, A. F. in A Continental Plate Boundary: Tectonics at South Island, New Zealand Vol. 175 (eds Okaya, D., Stern, T. & Davey, F.) 157–175 (Geophysical Monographs, American Geophysical Union, 2007).
Sutherland, R., Berryman, K. R. & Norris, R. J. Quaternary slip rate and geomorphology of the Alpine fault: Implications for kinematics and seismic hazard in southwest New Zealand. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 118, 464–474 (2006).
Wallace, L. M., Beavan, J., McCaffrey, R., Berryman, K. & Denys, P. Balancing the plate motion budget in the South Island, New Zealand using GPS, geological and seismological data. Geophys. J. Int. 168, 332–352 (2007).
Walcott, R. I. Present tectonics and late Cenozoic evolution of New Zealand. Rev. Geophys. 36, 1–26 (1998).
Norris, R. J., Koons, P. O. & Cooper, A. F. The obliquely convergent plates in the South Island of New Zealand: Implications for ancient collision zones. J. Struct. Geol. 23, 507–520 (1990).
Little, T. A., Holcombe, R. J. & Ilg, B. R. Kinematics of oblique collision and ramping inferred from microstructures and strain in middle crustal rocks, central Southern Alps, New Zealand. J. Struct. Geol. 24, 219–239 (2002).
Griffiths, G. A. & McSaveney, M. J. Distribution of mean annual precipitation across some steepland regions of New Zealand. N. Z. J. Sci. 26, 197–209 (1983).
Herman, F., Cox, S. C. & Kamp, P. J. J. Low-temperature thermochronology and thermokinematic modeling of deformation, exhumation, and development of topography in the central Southern Alps, New Zealand. Tectonics 28, TC5011 (2009).
Cande, S. C. & Stock, J. M. Pacific–Antarctic–Australia motion and the formation of the Macquarie Plate. Geophys. J. Int. 157, 399–414 (2004).
Castelltort, S. & Simpson, G. River spacing and drainage network growth in widening mountain ranges. Basin Res. 18, 267–276 (2006).
Graveleau, F. Interactions between Tectonics, Erosion and Sedimentation in foreland belts : Analogue modelling and study of eastern Tian Shan piedmonts (Central Asia) PhD thesis, Université Montpellier II—Sciences et Techniques du Languedoc (2008).
Craw, D., Youngson, J. H. & Koons, P. O. Gold Dispersal and placer formation in an active oblique collisional mountain belt, Southern Alps, New Zealand. Econ. Geol. 94, 605–614 (1999).
Cutten, H. N. C. Rappahannock group—Late Cenozoic sedimentation and tectonics contemporaneous with Alpine Fault movement. N. Z. J. Geol. Geophys. 22, 535–553 (1979).
Whitehouse, I. E. Geomorphology of a compressional plate boundary, Southern Alps, New Zealand. Int. Geomorphol. 1, 897–924 (1986).
Koons, P. O. Three-dimensional critical wedges: Tectonics and topography in oblique collisional orogens. J. Geophys. Res. 99, 12301–12315 (1994).
Braun, J. & Sambridge, M. Modelling landscape evolution on geological time scales: A new method based on irregular spatial discretization. Basin Res. 9, 27–52 (1997).
Davey, F. J. et al. in A Continental Plate Boundary. Tectonics at South Island, New Zealand Vol. 175 (eds Okaya, D., Stern, T. & Davey, F.) 47–73 (Geophysical Monographs, American Geophysical Union, 2007).
S.C. thanks J. Van Den Driessche, G. Simpson, L. Husson and B. Kaus for discussions of drainage basins and distributed deformation. We thank M. Attal and R. Norris for their constructive reviews and input on this work. P. Wessel and W. H. F. Smith are thanked for releasing freely the Generic Mapping Tools (GMT) software, version 4.5.3, with which maps and figures have been drafted. L.G. is an Awardee of the Weizmann Institute of Science—National Postdoctoral Award Program for Advancing Women in Science. S.C. was also supported by Swiss National Science Foundation Grant Number 200021-119841.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Castelltort, S., Goren, L., Willett, S. et al. River drainage patterns in the New Zealand Alps primarily controlled by plate tectonic strain. Nature Geosci 5, 744–748 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1582
This article is cited by
Nature Communications (2021)
Science China Earth Sciences (2021)
Andaman–Nicobar–Sumatra Margin Revisited: Analysis of the Lithospheric Structure and Deformation Based on Gravity Modeling and Distribution of Seismicity
Surveys in Geophysics (2021)
Nature Geoscience (2017)
Science China Earth Sciences (2017)