Flood magnitude-frequency and lithologic controls on bedrock river incision in post-orogenic terrain



Publication Details

Jansen, J. D. (2006). Flood magnitude-frequency and lithologic controls on bedrock river incision in post-orogenic terrain. Geomorphology, 82 (1-2), 39-57.


Mixed bedrock-alluvial rivers-bedrock channels lined with a discontinuous alluvial cover-are key agents in the shaping of mountain belt topography by bedrock fluvial incision. Whereas much research focuses upon the erosional dynamics of such rivers in the context of rapidly uplifting orogenic landscapes, the present study investigates river incision processes in a post-orogenic (cratonic) landscape undergoing extremely low rates of incision (< 5 m/Ma). River incision processes are examined as a function of substrate lithology and the magnitude and frequency of formative flows along Sandy Creek gorge, a mixed bedrock-alluvial stream in arid SE-central Australia. Incision is focused along a bedrock channel with a partial alluvial cover arranged into riffle-pool macrobedforms that reflect interactions between rock structure and large-flood hydraulics. Variations in channel width and gradient determine longitudinal trends in mean shear stress (τb) and therefore also patterns of sediment transport and deposition. A steep and narrow, non-propagating knickzone (with 5% alluvial cover) coincides with a resistant quartzite unit that subdivides the gorge into three reaches according to different rock erodibility and channel morphology. The three reaches also separate distinct erosional styles: bedrock plucking (i.e. detachment-limited erosion) prevails along the knickzone, whereas along the upper and lower gorge rock incision is dependent upon large formative floods exceeding critical erosion thresholds (τc) for coarse boulder deposits that line 70% of the channel thalweg (i.e. transport-limited erosion). The mobility of coarse bed materials (up to 2 m diameter) during late Holocene palaeofloods of known magnitude and age is evaluated using step-backwater flow modelling in conjunction with two selective entrainment equations. A new approach for quantifying the formative flood magnitude in mixed bedrock-alluvial rivers is described here based on the mobility of a key coarse fraction of the bed materials; in this case the d84 size fraction. A 350 m3/s formative flood fully mobilises the coarse alluvial cover with τb∼200-300 N/m2 across the upper and lower gorge riffles, peaking over 500 N/m2 in the knickzone. Such floods have an annual exceedance probability much less than 10- 2 and possibly as low as 10- 3. The role of coarse alluvial cover in the gorge is discussed at two scales: (1) modulation of bedrock exposure at the reach-scale, coupled with adjustment to channel width and gradient, accommodates uniform incision across rocks of different erodibility in steady-state fashion; and (2) at the sub-reach scale where coarse boulder deposits (corresponding to τb minima) cap topographic convexities in the rock floor, thereby restricting bedrock incision to rare large floods. While recent studies postulate that decreasing uplift rates during post-orogenic topographic decay might drive a shift to transport-limited conditions in river networks, observations here and elsewhere in post-orogenic settings suggest, to the contrary, that extremely low erosion rates are maintained with substantial bedrock channel exposure. Although bed material mobility is known to be rate-limiting for bedrock river incision under low sediment flux conditions, exactly how a partial alluvial cover might be spatially distributed to either optimise or impede the rate of bedrock incision is open to speculation. Observations here suggest that the small volume of very stable bed materials lining Sandy Creek gorge is distributed so as to minimise the rate of bedrock fluvial incision over time. © 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

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