Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Article
  • Published:

Global dominance of tectonics over climate in shaping river longitudinal profiles

An Author Correction to this article was published on 15 July 2021

This article has been updated


River networks are striking features engraved into the surface of the Earth, shaped by uplift and erosion under the joint influence of climate and tectonics. How a river’s gradient changes as it descends along its course—its longitudinal profile concavity—varies greatly from one basin to the next, reflecting the interplay between uplift and erosional processes. A recent global analysis has suggested that climatic aridity should be a first-order control on river profile concavity, but the importance of climate relative to other factors has not been tested at global scale. Here, we show, using recent global datasets of climate, river profiles and tectonic activity, that tectonics is much more strongly expressed than climate in global patterns of river profile concavity. River profiles tend to be more strongly concave in tectonically active regions along plate boundaries, reflecting tectonically induced spatial variations in uplift rates. Rank correlations between river profile concavity and four global tectonic proxies (basin-averaged channel gradients, distance to plate boundaries and two measures of seismic activity) are much stronger than those between river concavity and three climate metrics (precipitation, potential evapotranspiration and aridity). We explain the association between tectonic activity and increased river profile concavity through a simple conceptual model of long-term uplift and river incision. These results show that tectonics, and not climate, exerts dominant control on the shape of river longitudinal profiles globally.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Definition of the normalized concavity index.
Fig. 2: Global distributions of basin-averaged river longitudinal profile concavity (NCI) and tectonic plate boundaries.
Fig. 3: Global distributions of basin-averaged climate characteristics and proxies of tectonic activity.
Fig. 4: Correlations between river profile concavity and tectonic and climatic indices.

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

All data used in this study are available in the Supplementary Information or via the cited sources. The model outputs that support the findings of this study are available in Supplementary Table 1. NCI, aridity and slope data are available at Precipitation data22 are available at Potential evapotranspiration data23 are available at Plate boundary data24 are available at HydroSHEDS data25 are available at GEM data20 are available at GSHAP data21 are available at Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The numerical code we used to analyse the data is available upon request.

Change history


  1. Howard, A. D. A detachment‐limited model of drainage basin evolution. Water Resour. Res. 30, 2261–2285 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Willett, S. D., McCoy, S. W., Perron, J. T., Goren, L. & Chen, C. Y. Dynamic reorganization of river basins. Science 343, 1248765 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Vannote, R. L., Minshall, G. W., Cummins, K. W., Sedell, J. R. & Cushing, C. E. The river continuum concept. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 37, 130–137 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Smith, L. C. Rivers of Power: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations and Shapes Our World (Little, Brown and Company, 2020)

  5. Hack, J. T. Studies of Longitudinal Stream Profiles in Virginia and Maryland Geological Survey Professional Paper 294-B (USGS, 1957).

  6. Seybold, H., Rothman, D. H. & Kirchner, J. W. Climate’s watermark in the geometry of stream networks. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 2272–2280 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Chen, S. A., Michaelides, K., Grieve, S. W. & Singer, M. B. Aridity is expressed in river topography globally. Nature 573, 573–577 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Gilbert, G. K. Report on the Geology of the Henry Mountains (USGS, 1877).

  9. Leopold, L. B. & Maddock, T. Jr The Hydraulic Geometry of Stream Channels and Some Physiographic Implications Geological Survey Professional Paper 252 (USGS, 1953).

  10. Montgomery, D. R. & Buffington, J. M. Channel-reach morphology in mountain drainage basins. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 109, 596–611 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Whipple, K. X. & Tucker, G. E. Dynamics of the stream-power river incision model: implications for height limits of mountain ranges, landscape response time scales and research needs. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 17661–17674 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Sklar, L. & Dietrich, W. E. in Rivers over Rock: Fluvial Processes in Bedrock Channels (eds Tinkler, E. J. & Wohl, E. E.) 237–260 (American Geophysical Union, 1998).

  13. Whittaker, A. C., Attal, M., Cowie, P. A., Tucker, G. E. & Roberts, G. Decoding temporal and spatial patterns of fault uplift using transient river long profiles. Geomorphology 100, 506–526 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Ferrier, K. L., Huppert, K. L. & Perron, J. T. Climatic control of bedrock river incision. Nature 496, 206–209 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Kirby, E. & Whipple, K. X. Expression of active tectonics in erosional landscapes. J. Struct. Geol. 44, 54–75 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. DiBiase, R. A., Whipple, K. X., Heimsath, A. M. & Ouimet, W. B. Landscape form and millennial erosion rates in the San Gabriel Mountains, CA. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 289, 134–144 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Demoulin, A. Testing the tectonic significance of some parameters of longitudinal river profiles: the case of the Ardenne (Belgium, NW Europe). Geomorphology 24, 189–208 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Pritchard, D., Roberts, G. G., White, N. J. & Richardson, C. N. Uplift histories from river profiles. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L24301 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Gallen, S. F. & Wegmann, K. W. River profile response to normal fault growth and linkage: an example from the Hellenic forearc of south-central Crete, Greece. Earth Surf. Dyn. 5, 161–186 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Pagani, M. et al. The 2018 version of the Global Earthquake Model: hazard component. Earthq. Spectra (2020).

  21. Giardini, D., Grünthal, G., Shedlock, K. M. & Zhang, P. The GSHAP global seismic hazard map. Ann. Geophys. 42, 1225–1230 (1999).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Fick, S. E. & Hijmans, R. J. WorldClim 2: new 1-km spatial resolution climate surfaces for global land areas. Int. J. Climatol. 37, 4302–4315 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Trabucco, A. & Zomer, R. J. Global Aridity and PET Database (CGIAR Consortium for Spatial Information, 2009);

  24. Bird, P. An updated digital model of plate boundaries. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 4, 1027 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Lehner, B., Verdin, K. & Jarvis, A. HydroSHEDS Technical Documentation, Version 1.0 (World Wildlife Fund, 2006).

  26. Burbank D. W. & Anderson R. S. Tectonic Geomorphology 2nd edn, 316–369 (Blackwell Science, 2012)

  27. Montgomery, D. R. & Brandon, M. T. Topographic controls on erosion rates in tectonically active mountain ranges. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 201, 481–489 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Montgomery, D. R. Slope distributions, threshold hillslopes and steady-state topography. Am. J. Sci. 301, 432–454 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Roe, G. H., Montgomery, D. R. & Hallet, B. Effects of orographic precipitation variations on the concavity of steady-state river profiles. Geology 30, 143–146 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Anderson, R. S., Molnar, P. & Kessler, M. A. Features of glacial valley profiles simply explained. J. Geophys. Res. 111, F01004 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  31. Sklar, L. S. & Dietrich, W. E. Implications of the saltation–abrasion bedrock incision model for steady‐state river longitudinal profile relief and concavity. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 33, 1129–1151 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Willett, S. D. Orogeny and orography: the effects of erosion on the structure of mountain belts. J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth 104, 28957–28981 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Duvall, A., Kirby, E. & Burbank, D. Tectonic and lithologic controls on bedrock channel profiles and processes in coastal California. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 109, F03002 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Braun, J., Simon-Labric, T., Murray, K. E. & Reiners, P. W. Topographic relief driven by variations in surface rock density. Nat. Geosci. 7, 534–540 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Sklar, L. S. et al. The problem of predicting the size distribution of sediment supplied by hillslopes to rivers. Geomorphology 277, 31–49 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Tucker, G. E. Drainage basin sensitivity to tectonic and climatic forcing: implications of a stochastic model for the role of entrainment and erosion thresholds. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 29, 185–205 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Wobus, C. W., Tucker, G. E. & Anderson, R. S. Does climate change create distinctive patterns of landscape incision? J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 115, F04008 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank the Global Earthquake Model Foundation for providing the Global Earthquake Model’s Global Seismic Hazard Map.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



H.S., J.P.P., J.W.K. and W.R.B. conceived the idea and designed the study. H.S. analysed the data. J.W.K. led the analysis in Supplementary section 2, with contributions from W.R.B. and H.S. All authors contributed to interpreting the results. W.R.B. and J.W.K. led the writing, with contributions from all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wouter R. Berghuijs.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Geoscience thanks Kelin Whipple and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editors: James Super; Tamara Goldin.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Correlations between river profile concavity and peak ground acceleration in the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program model (GSHAP21).

Panel (a) and panel (b) display these correlations with and without averaging over basins, respectively. The rank correlations are similar to those reported in the main paper for peak ground acceleration from the Global Earthquake Model20 (Fig. 4a) and Extended Data Fig. 2a.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Correlations between river profile concavity and tectonic and climatic indices without averaging over basins.

Binned river segment concavity index (NCI) values7 are strongly correlated with three indices of tectonic activity: peak ground acceleration from the Global Earthquake Model20 (a), the distance to the nearest plate boundary24 (b), and mean river profile gradient7 (slope, c). NCI values are only weakly correlated with three climatic indices: precipitation22 (P, d), potential evapotranspiration23 (PET, e), and aridity index7,23 (P/PET, f). Spearman rank correlations (ρ) are shown for the un-binned values. The rank correlations of the plotted (that is, binned) points are visibly stronger, but vary depending on the details of the binning. The data are averaged within 50 bins each containing 2 percent of the data.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary text, Figs. 1–4 and Tables 1 and 2.

Source data

Source Data Figs. 2–4

Basin-averaged values for all variables used in this analysis.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Seybold, H., Berghuijs, W.R., Prancevic, J.P. et al. Global dominance of tectonics over climate in shaping river longitudinal profiles. Nat. Geosci. 14, 503–507 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing