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landscape evolution

Southern Minnesota is geomorphologically exciting: Glacial outburst floods, knickpoint retreat, and terraces galore!

Today in my flvuial processes class, we’re going to discuss a great paper by Gran et al. on “Landscape evolution, valley excavation, and terrace development following abrupt postglacial baselevel fall.” The paper is set in a landscape I know well – southern Minnesota’s Minnesota River Basin. For my students in northeastern Ohio, this landscape would feel somewhat similar to the area around here, but not quite. Similarly, the glacial history has some degree of overlap (glaciers covering the region and retreating about ~14,000 years ago), but there are some unique elements of each place. Fortunately, I found a series of short video clips that do a nice job of setting the Minnesota River story in its context.

The tributaries to the Minnesota River are still relaxing after all of this geologic excitement. As a result, many of the tributaries exhibit knickpoints or knick zones – steepened areas on the channel profile.

Long profiles of the Le Sueur, Maple, and Big Cobb Rivers showing the presence of a major knick point around 30-35 kilometers upstream from the mouth of the river. Figure from Gran et al reproduced under a CC license, via SERC.

Long profiles of the Le Sueur, Maple, and Big Cobb Rivers showing the presence of a major knick point around 30-35 kilometers upstream from the mouth of the river. Figure from Gran et al reproduced under a CC license, via SERC.

You don’t have to go to the primary literature to learn about the knickpoints and what’s going on in the Minnesota tributaries, thanks to a nice short discussion by Karen Gran. There’s even a huge knickpoint left on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis as a result of the Glacial River Warren and draining of Lake Agassiz. You can read about that one here.

For a great discussion of fixed versus mobile knickpoints, check out this essay by Ben Crosby, who did his PhD work on a particularly knickpoint rich landscape in New Zealand. More good discussion of knickpoint mobility can be found in this blog post by Chuck Bailey. Finally, Steven Schimmrich has a nice series of blog posts on knickpoint retreat at Niagara Falls.

If that’s not enough, knickpoint retreat is often associated with the formation of terraces. There are two types of terraces to come to terms with. Cut-and-fill terraces, where the unconsolidated sediments are actually alluvium, show that the river has had periods of both aggradation and incision (and lateral planation of the valley bottom). In rivers with strath terraces, aggradational periods are either relatively minor or non-existent and the terraces represent alternating periods of incision and lateral planation. Callan Bentley has illustrated each type of terrace below, and you should see his post and comments for good discussion of the intricacies of naming and describing these features.

Terrace types, by Callan Bentley.

Terrace types, by Callan Bentley.

Mountaintop Removal Mining

This semester I’m teaching Environmental Earth Science to a fantastic group of students at Kent State. In tomorrow’s class about fossil fuels, we’ll be talking about coal formation, use, and environmental consequences. A big one I think they should be aware of is the practice of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. We’ve already talked about it a bit, but I think this video gives some nice visuals, even if the narration veers a bit from overly dramatic to “boys with toys”.

From the Smithsonian:

Several well-respected scientists are working to figure out the impact of mountaintop removal mining on stream ecosystems. The coal companies haven’t exactly lined up to fund their work and provide access to the sites. So what *do* we know about the impacts of mountaintop mining on Appalachian streams and rivers? Here’s just one example, from the abstract of Bernhardt and Palmer (2011):

Southern Appalachian forests are recognized as a biodiversity hot spot of global significance, particularly for endemic aquatic salamanders and mussels. The dominant driver of land-cover and land-use change in this region is surface mining, with an ever-increasing proportion occurring as mountaintop mining with valley fill operations (MTVF). In MTVF, seams of coal are exposed using explosives, and the resulting noncoal overburden is pushed into adjacent valleys to facilitate coal extraction. To date, MTVF throughout the Appalachians have converted 1.1 million hectares of forest to surfacemines and buried more than 2,000 km of stream channel beneath mining overburden. The impacts of these lost forests and buried streams are propagated throughout the river networks of the region as the resulting sediment and chemical pollutants are transmitted downstream. There is, to date, no evidence to suggest that the extensive chemical and hydrologic alterations of streams by MTVF can be offset or reversed by currently required reclamation and mitigation practices.

Here’s an overview of the consequences and some suggested policy recommendations, presented in Science in 2010.

Among the scientists working on the environmental consequences of mountaintop removal, Margaret Palmer has become perhaps the most visible. Here she is on the Colbert Report:

(Note: the content appears to be unavailable tonight. Hopefully it will be made available again soon.)

Finally, here’s an profile of Margaret Palmer and her work on mountaintop removal mining, published earlier this year in Science magazine.

For more information:

GSA 2013: Revisiting watershed drainage density: New considerations for hydrologic prediction

While I’ll be missing the festivities at the 125th anniversary edition of the the Geological Society of America, my able collaborator Sarah Lewis will be presenting our work in a session on “Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology: Past, Present, and Future.” Here’s what she’ll be showing off:

Revisiting watershed drainage density: New considerations for hydrologic prediction

S.L. Lewis, M. Safeeq, A.J. Jefferson, G.E. Grant

Watershed morphometry has long been identified as a major control on the shape and character of the hydrograph. Easily extractable landscape-level metrics have been explored for hydrologic prediction in ungaged watersheds, with varying success. In particular, mean drainage density (stream length/watershed area), which has a strong theoretical relationship to flow, has been both heralded and cast aside as an explanatory variable for hydrograph characteristics. However, previous approaches did not account for the spatial heterogeneity in drainage density within a single watershed. For example, many watersheds in the Oregon Cascades are comprised of both young lava flows with limited drainage networks, subtle peaks and sustained baseflows, and older highly dissected volcanics with steep slopes and flashy hydrographs. A mean drainage density fails to represent this dichotomy.

Here we revisit the long-standing conceptualization of drainage density as a good predictor of flow behavior at the landscape level. We depict drainage density (Dd) heterogeneity as a probability distribution function (pdf) of individual drainage densities within a watershed. Rather than limiting Dd to a single number (mean), we use standard quantitative descriptors of the pdf to explore landscape-level controls on flow regime. Two watersheds with similar mean values may have dramatically different pdfs and therefore exhibit variations in flow dynamics. We assert that some of the inconsistent results applying Dd as a predictive variable may be due to the accuracy with which a mean value can capture the behavior of a drainage network. In watersheds where drainage density is homogeneous, mean Dd may provide a good approximation of drainage behavior, but in watersheds where drainage density is heterogeneous, quantitative descriptors of the pdf can provide additional insight into flow dynamics.

New paper in press: Jefferson and McGee, Channel network extent …in the North Carolina Piedmont

Jefferson, A. and McGee, R.W. in press. Channel network extent in the context of historical land use, flow generation processes, and landscape evolution in the North Carolina Piedmont, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms

Here’s the abstract:

Intensive agricultural land use in the 18th through early 20th centuries on the southeastern Piedmont resulted in substantial soil erosion and gully development. Today, many historically farmed areas have been abandoned and afforested, and such landscapes are an opportunity to study channel network recovery from disturbance by gullying. Channel initiation mapping, watershed area-slope relationships, and field monitoring of flow generation processes are used to identify channel network extent and place it in hydrologic, historical and landscape evolution context. In six study areas in the North Carolina Piedmont, 100 channel heads were mapped in fully-forested watersheds, revealing a channel initiation relationship of 380=A*S1.27, where A is contributing area (m2) and S is local slope (m/m). Flow in these channels is generated by subsurface and overland flow. The measured relative slope exponent is lower than expected based on literature values of ~2 for forested watersheds with subsurface and overland flow, suggesting that the channel network extent may reflect a former hydrological regime. However,geomorphic evidence of recovery in channel heads within fully forested watersheds is greater than those with present day pasture. Present day channel heads lie within hollows or downslope of unchanneled valleys, which may be remnants of historical gullies, and area-slope relationships provide evidence of colluvial aggradation within the valleys. Channel network extent appears to be sensitive to land use change, with recovery beginning within decades of afforestation. Channel initiation mapping and area-slope relationships are shown to be useful tools for interpreting geomorphic effects of land use change.

The paper is now available on-line at:

One of the channel heads mapped in our paper. Cleo, our longest-serving lab member, is sadly uncredited in the acknowledgements.

Abstract: Timescales of drainage network evolution are driven by coupled changes in landscape properties and hydrologic response

I will be at the CUAHSI 3rd Biennial Colloquium on Hydrologic Science and Engineering on July 16-18, 2012 in Boulder, Colorado. I’ve been asked to speak in a session on the co-evolution of geomorphology and hydrology. This is a cool opportunity for me, as I’ve been thinking about co-evolution in both volcanic landscapes and Piedmont gullies for the past couple of years. I’m going to attempt to stitch those two very different landscapes and timescales together in one conceptual framework in the talk, and I guess we’ll see how it goes.

Timescales of drainage network evolution are driven by coupled changes in landscape properties and hydrologic response
Anne J. Jefferson

In diverse landscapes, channel initiation locations move up or downslope over time in response to changes in land surface properties (vegetation, soils, and topography) which control the partitioning of water between subsurface, overland, and channelized flowpaths. In turn, channelized flow exerts greater erosive power than overland or subsurface flows, and can much more efficiently denude and dissect the landscape, leading to altered flowpaths and land surface properties. These feedbacks can be considered a fundamental aspect of catchment coevolution, with the headward extent of the stream network and landscape dissection as prime indicators of the evolutionary status of a landscape.

Photo by Ralph McGee, used with Permission.

Gullying in a Piedmont forest, downslope from a pasture. Cabin Creek headwaters, Redlair. Photo by Ralph McGee, used with permission.

Drainage network evolution in response to landscape change may occur over multiple timescales, depending on the rapidity of change in the hydrogeomorphic drivers. Climate and lithology may also modify the rates at which drainage networks respond to change in land surface properties. On basaltic landscapes, such as the Oregon Cascades, timescales of a million years or more can be necessary to evolve from an undissected landscape with slow, deep groundwater drainage to a fully-dissected landscape dominated by shallow subsurface stormflow and rapid hydrograph response in streams. This evolution seems to be driven by a slow change in land surface properties and permeability as a result of weathering, soil development, and mantling by low permeability materials, but may also reflect the high erosion resistance of crystalline bedrock. Conversely, rapid or near-instantaneous changes in land surface properties , such as accompanied the beginning of intensive agriculture in the southeastern Piedmont, can propagate into rapid (1-10 year) changes in channel network extent on clay-rich soils. Where agriculture has been abandoned in this region and forests have regrown, downslope retreat and infilling of extensive gully networks is occurring on decadal timescales.

Chapman Abstract: Top down or bottom up? Volcanic history, climate, and the hydrologic evolution of volcanic landscapes

In July 2011, Anne was a plenary speaker at the Chapman Conference on The Galápagos as a Laboratory for the Earth Sciences in Puerto Ayora, Galapágos. Anne was tasked with reviewing the state-of-knowledge of volcanic island hydrology and identifying pressing questions for future research in this 40 minute talk. The following is the abstract which she submitted when she began the task.

Top down or bottom up? Volcanic history, climate, and the hydrologic evolution of volcanic landscapes

Volcanic landscapes are well suited for observing changes in hydrologic processes over time, because they can be absolutely dated and island chains segregate surfaces of differing age. The hydrology of mafic volcanic landscapes evolves from recently emplaced lava flows with no surface drainage, toward extensive stream networks and deeply dissected topography. Groundwater, a significant component of the hydrologic system in young landscapes, may become less abundant over time. Drainage density, topography, and stream and groundwater discharge provide readily quantifiable measures of hydrologic and landscape evolution on volcanic chronosequences. In the Oregon Cascades, for example, the surface drainage network is created and becomes deeply incised over the same million-year timescale at which springs disappear from the landscape. But chronosequence studies are of limited value if they are not closely tied to the processes setting the initial conditions and driving hydrologic evolution over time.

Landscape dissection occurs primarily by erosion from overland flow, which is absent or limited in young, mafic landscapes. Thus, volcano hydrology requires conceptual models that explain landscape evolution in terms of processes which affect partitioning of water between surface and subsurface flows. Multiple conceptual models have been proposed to explain hydrologic partitioning and evolution of volcanic landscapes, invoking both bottom up (e.g., hydrothermal alteration) and top down processes (e.g., soil development). I suggest that hydrologic characteristics of volcanic islands and arcs are a function of two factors: volcanic history and climate. We have only begun to characterize the relative importance of these two drivers in setting the hydrologic characteristics of volcanic landscapes of varying age and geologic and climatic settings.

Detailed studies of individual volcanoes have identified dikes and sills as barriers to groundwater and lava flow contacts as preferential zones of groundwater movement. Erosion between eruptive episodes and deposits from multiple eruptive centers can complicate spatial patterns of groundwater flow, and hydrothermal alteration can reduce permeability, decreasing deep groundwater circulation over time. Size and abundance of tephra may be a major geologic determinant of groundwater/surface water partitioning, while flank collapse can introduce knickpoints that drive landscape dissection. The combination of these volcanic controls will set initial conditions for the hydrology and drive bottom up evolutionary processes.

Climatic forcing drives many top down processes, but understanding the relative effectiveness of these processes in propelling hydrologic evolution requires broader cross-site comparisons. The extent of weathering may be a major control on whether water infiltrates vertically or moves laterally, and we know weathering rates increase until precipitation exceeds evapotranspiration. Weathering by plant roots initially increases porosity, but accumulation of weathered materials, such as clays in soils, can reduce near-surface permeability and promote overland flow. Similarly, eolian or glacial inputs may create low permeability covers on volcanic landscapes.

View into the crater of Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabella Island, Galapagos

View of the 2005 lava inside the crater of Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabella Island, Galapagos. Photo by A. Jefferson

Scenic Saturday: Ropy pahoehoe on a biogenic beach

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

Anne on a ropy pahoehoe flow on the beach

Anne enjoying the scenery on Isabella Island, Galápagos, July 2011

In this inaugural Scenic Saturday post, I offer up very happy volcano/landscape nerd enjoying the stunning geologic scenery on Isabella, Galápagos Islands, July 2011. I was there as a participant in the Chapman Conference on the Galápagos as a Laboratory for the Earth Sciences. I may manage to blog in more detail about the islands and the conference, but for now enjoy the scenery, just as I did on my first few days in the archipelago.

In the image above, I’ve got my back to the village of Villamil, on the southern flank of Sierra Negra volcano, and I’m actually sitting on some of the oldest exposed lavas from that volcano. You’re looking at the crust of a pahoehoe flow that is probably about 5000 to 9000 years old. A short distance up the beach, I could peek under the skin of the lava and walk a few meters into a lava tube. The floor of this lava tube was below sea level and covered by sea water, so this was really a chance to experience the water table in a very macro-pore.

Lava tube, geologist for scale

Lava tube, USGS scientist for scale. Isabella Island, Galápagos, July 2011

The lava along this stretch of seafront is largely covered by sand that is clearly not basaltic. Instead it is made of little bits of broken shells and sea urchins from the incredibly rich marine ecosystem that surrounds the islands.

Beach sediments

Beach close-up, near Villamil, Isabella Island, Galápagos, July 2011

Elsewhere, the biogenic beach was covered by rather more living parts of the marine ecosystem. This sea lion put on a quite a performance for some appreciative visitors to a mangrove lagoon (and freshwater spring).

Isabella 105

Sea lion, sand, and mangrove roots, near Villamil, Isabella Island, Galápagos, July 2011