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gullies

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.

AGU 2011 abstract: Understanding channel network extent in the North Carolina Piedmont in the context of legacy land use, flow generation processes, and landscape dissection

The following talk will be presented by Anne at the 2011 AGU fall meeting on Wednesday, December 7th from 9 to 9:15 am in the session “EP31G. Predictive Understanding of Coupled Interactions Among Water, Life, and Landforms II.” It will be in rooms 2022-2024, and the abstract acceptance said something about video on demand.

Understanding channel network extent in the North Carolina Piedmont in the context of legacy land use, flow generation processes, and landscape dissection

Anne J. Jefferson and Ralph W. McGee
Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC

Nearly all land in the eastern US Piedmont region was cleared for intensive agriculture following European settlement, but some areas have been afforested over the last century. In these areas, an extensive ephemeral stream network drains into perennial headwater streams. In order to understand the present-day functioning of the ephemeral network in afforested watersheds, we mapped 102 channel head positions at 6 sites and monitored 6 channels at 2 sites in North Carolina’s Piedmont. The ephemeral channels are activated by subsurface flow from high intensity precipitation with wet or dry soils, or long duration precipitation with wet soils. Overland flow does not occur upslope of channel heads in forested watersheds, but it is observed in present-day pastures and fields.

Channel head contributing areas range from 0.1 – 3.0 ha, with local slopes that average 0.13 (range: 0.04 – 0.36). The relationship between slope and area at the channel heads has the form c = AS1.1, with an exponent much lower than the commonly reported exponent of ~2 that is associated with subsurface or saturation overland flow. Instead, the lower exponent may reflect the legacy of 18th-19th century of intense land use and degraded cover, which may have produced turbulent overland flow upslope of channels. Though established by relict land use conditions, we suggest that this network extent is maintained by the frequent activation of the channels through subsurface flow under forest cover. Further, channel heads are located within or downslope of colluvial hollows suggesting that gullying from historical land use is not the most extensive channel network experienced by the Piedmont over the course its landscape evolution, and that the dissection of the landscape may be the result of a precipitation and land cover regime much different from the modern one.

Gully down to bedrock, Morrow Mountains State Park, North Carolina (photo by A. Jefferson)

Gully down to bedrock, Morrow Mountains State Park, North Carolina (photo by A. Jefferson)