Articles | Volume 5, issue 1
Research article
28 Feb 2017
Research article |  | 28 Feb 2017

River profile response to normal fault growth and linkage: an example from the Hellenic forearc of south-central Crete, Greece

Sean F. Gallen and Karl W. Wegmann

Abstract. Topography is a reflection of the tectonic and geodynamic processes that act to uplift the Earth's surface and the erosional processes that work to return it to base level. Numerous studies have shown that topography is a sensitive recorder of tectonic signals. A quasi-physical understanding of the relationship between river incision and rock uplift has made the analysis of fluvial topography a popular technique for deciphering relative, and some argue absolute, histories of rock uplift. Here we present results from a study of the fluvial topography from south-central Crete, demonstrating that river longitudinal profiles indeed record the relative history of uplift, but several other processes make it difficult to recover quantitative uplift histories. Prior research demonstrates that the south-central coastline of Crete is bound by a large ( ∼  100 km long) E–W striking composite normal fault system. Marine terraces reveal that it is uplifting between 0.1 and 1.0 mm yr−1. These studies suggest that two normal fault systems, the offshore Ptolemy and onshore South-Central Crete faults, linked together in the recent geologic past (ca. 0.4–1 My BP). Fault mechanics predict that when adjacent faults link into a single fault the uplift rate in footwalls of the linkage zone will increase rapidly. We use this natural experiment to assess the response of river profiles to a temporal jump in uplift rate and to assess the applicability of the stream power incision model to this setting. Using river profile analysis we show that rivers in south-central Crete record the relative uplift history of fault growth and linkage as theory predicts that they should. Calibration of the commonly used stream power incision model shows that the slope exponent, n, is  ∼  0.5, contrary to most studies that find n  ≥  1. Analysis of fluvial knickpoints shows that migration distances are not proportional to upstream contributing drainage area, as predicted by the stream power incision model. Maps of the transformed stream distance variable, χ, indicate that drainage basin instability, drainage divide migration, and river capture events complicate river profile analysis in south-central Crete. Waterfalls are observed in southern Crete and appear to operate under less efficient and different incision mechanics than assumed by the stream power incision model. Drainage area exchange and waterfall formation are argued to obscure linkages between empirically derived metrics and quasi-physical descriptions of river incision, making it difficult to quantitatively interpret rock uplift histories from river profiles in this setting. Karst hydrology, break down of assumed drainage area discharge scaling, and chemical weathering might also contribute to the failure of the stream power incision model to adequately predict the behavior of the fluvial system in south-central Crete.

Short summary
We present results from a natural experiment where bedrock rivers are adjusting to a step change in rock uplift rate and where constraints on the recent pattern of rock uplift exist. We show that while rivers record the relative rock uplift history, quantitative information on timing is masked by complexities in incision processes, changes in river network configuration, and possibly other factors. Our results emphasize caution when interpreting tectonic signals from some bedrock river systems.