Articles | Volume 4, issue 1
Research article
17 Mar 2016
Research article |  | 17 Mar 2016

Lithological control on the landscape form of the upper Rhône Basin, Central Swiss Alps

Laura Stutenbecker, Anna Costa, and Fritz Schlunegger

Abstract. The development of topography depends mainly on the interplay between uplift and erosion. These processes are controlled by various factors including climate, glaciers, lithology, seismic activity and short-term variables, such as anthropogenic impact. Many studies in orogens all over the world have shown how these controlling variables may affect the landscape's topography. In particular, it has been hypothesized that lithology exerts a dominant control on erosion rates and landscape morphology. However, clear demonstrations of this influence are rare and difficult to disentangle from the overprint of other signals such as climate or tectonics.

In this study we focus on the upper Rhône Basin situated in the Central Swiss Alps in order to explore the relation between topography, possible controlling variables and lithology in particular. The Rhône Basin has been affected by spatially variable uplift, high orographically driven rainfalls and multiple glaciations. Furthermore, lithology and erodibility vary substantially within the basin. Thanks to high-resolution geological, climatic and topographic data, the Rhône Basin is a suitable laboratory to explore these complexities.

Elevation, relief, slope and hypsometric data as well as river profile information from digital elevation models are used to characterize the landscape's topography of around 50 tributary basins. Additionally, uplift over different timescales, glacial inheritance, precipitation patterns and erodibility of the underlying bedrock are quantified for each basin.

Results show that the chosen topographic and controlling variables vary remarkably between different tributary basins. We investigate the link between observed topographic differences and the possible controlling variables through statistical analyses. Variations of elevation, slope and relief seem to be linked to differences in long-term uplift rate, whereas elevation distributions (hypsometry) and river profile shapes may be related to glacial imprint. This confirms that the landscape of the Rhône Basin has been highly preconditioned by (past) uplift and glaciation. Linear discriminant analyses (LDAs), however, suggest a stronger link between observed topographic variations and differences in erodibility. We therefore conclude that despite evident glacial and tectonic conditioning, a lithologic control is still preserved and measurable in the landscape of the Rhône tributary basins.

Short summary
This paper considers the influence of lithology on the landscape development in the Central Swiss Alps. In high-alpine settings such as the upper Rhône valley, external forcing by climate, glaciation and uplift affects the geomorphological evolution of the landscape. By careful compilation of published data and geomorphological analysis we found that the rock type and its susceptibility to erosion are the main factors controlling the response time to those perturbations.