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Fluvial bevelling of topography controlled by lateral channel mobility and uplift rate

Abstract

Valley morphologies of rivers crossing zones of active uplift range from narrow canyons to broad alluvial surfaces. They provide illuminating examples of the fundamental, but poorly understood, competition between relief creation and landscape flattening. Motivated by a field example of abandoned kilometre-wide, fluvially eroded platforms on active detachment folds in the Tian Shan foreland, we present physical experiments investigating the controls on the area of a growing fold that is reworked by antecedent rivers. These experiments reproduce the range of observed field morphologies, varying from wholesale bevelling of the uplifting fold to the formation of narrow, steep-walled canyons. A log-linear fit to a simple dimensionless parameter shows that the competition between lateral channel mobility and rock-uplift rate explains >95% of the variance in the bevelled fraction of the folds. Our data suggest that lateral bedrock erosion rates of 0.5–40 m yr−1 are required to explain the formation of extensive platforms in the Tian Shan foreland and imply that varying water and sediment fluxes can cause striking changes in the degree of landscape flattening by influencing the lateral erosion rate.

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Figure 1: Extensively bevelled surfaces in the foreland of the Tian Shan.
Figure 2: Sketch of the two competing ‘fluxes’ hypothesized to predict the extent of bevelling and lateral erosion rate of the uplift.
Figure 3: The experimental set-up.
Figure 4: Photographs of the zone of uplift at the end of Runs 1–6.
Figure 5: Percentage of the area of uplift that is continuously reworked as a function of channel lateral mobility and uplift rate.
Figure 6: Bevelled fraction as a function of relative sediment-to-uplift flux and conceptual sketch of the influence of perturbations to the equilibrium.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the help of R. Christopher, J. Mullin, B. Erickson, S. Mielke, E. Steen, P. Pham, L. Horsager, K. Flemming, A. Poovey, E. Zanella and M. Barros with the set-up of the experiments. The work benefited greatly from discussions with J.-L. Grimaud, A. Friedrich, K. Cook, K. Sweeney, A. Wickert, J. Turowski and M. Lamb. J. P. Avouac is thanked for thoughtful comments on the first version of the manuscript. Support from National Science Foundation grant 1050070 to D.W.B. and a UCSB Graduate Student Opportunity award to A.B. is gratefully acknowledged. The project was also supported by the National Science Foundation via the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED) under grant EAR-1246761.

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A.B. performed the experiments and data analysis. All authors contributed to the conception of the study and the writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Aaron Bufe.

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Bufe, A., Paola, C. & Burbank, D. Fluvial bevelling of topography controlled by lateral channel mobility and uplift rate. Nature Geosci 9, 706–710 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2773

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