Articles | Volume 2, issue 2
Research article
21 Aug 2014
Research article |  | 21 Aug 2014

The linkages among hillslope-vegetation changes, elevation, and the timing of late-Quaternary fluvial-system aggradation in the Mojave Desert revisited

J. D. Pelletier

Abstract. Valley-floor-channel and alluvial-fan deposits and terraces in the southwestern US record multiple episodes of late-Quaternary fluvial-system aggradation and incision. Perhaps the most well-constrained of these episodes took place from the latest Pleistocene to the present in the Mojave Desert. One hypothesis for this episode – i.e., the paleovegetation-change hypothesis (PVCH) – posits that a reduction in hillslope vegetation cover associated with the transition from Pleistocene woodlands to Holocene desert scrub generated a pulse of sediment that triggered a primary phase of aggradation downstream, followed by channel incision, terrace abandonment, and initiation of a secondary phase of aggradation further downstream. A second hypothesis – i.e., the extreme-storm hypothesis – attributes episodes of aggradation and incision to changes in the frequency and/or intensity of extreme storms. In the past decade a growing number of studies has advocated the extreme-storm hypothesis and challenged the PVCH on the basis of inconsistencies in both timing and process. Here I show that in eight out of nine sites where the timing of fluvial-system aggradation in the Mojave Desert is reasonably well constrained, measured ages of primary aggradation are consistent with the predictions of the PVCH if the time-transgressive nature of paleovegetation changes with elevation is fully taken into account. I also present an alternative process model for PVCH that is more consistent with available data and produces sediment pulses primarily via an increase in drainage density (i.e., a transformation of hillslopes into low-order channels) rather than solely via an increase in sediment yield from hillslopes. This paper further documents the likely important role of changes in upland vegetation cover and drainage density in driving fluvial-system response during semiarid-to-arid climatic changes.