Articles | Volume 5, issue 1
Earth Surf. Dynam., 5, 85–100, 2017
Earth Surf. Dynam., 5, 85–100, 2017

Research article 30 Jan 2017

Research article | 30 Jan 2017

Steady state, erosional continuity, and the topography of landscapes developed in layered rocks

Matija Perne1,2, Matthew D. Covington1, Evan A. Thaler1, and Joseph M. Myre1 Matija Perne et al.
  • 1Department of Geosciences, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA
  • 2Jožef Stefan Institute, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Abstract. The concept of topographic steady state has substantially informed our understanding of the relationships between landscapes, tectonics, climate, and lithology. In topographic steady state, erosion rates are equal everywhere, and steepness adjusts to enable equal erosion rates in rocks of different strengths. This conceptual model makes an implicit assumption of vertical contacts between different rock types. Here we hypothesize that landscapes in layered rocks will be driven toward a state of erosional continuity, where retreat rates on either side of a contact are equal in a direction parallel to the contact rather than in the vertical direction. For vertical contacts, erosional continuity is the same as topographic steady state, whereas for horizontal contacts it is equivalent to equal rates of horizontal retreat on either side of a rock contact. Using analytical solutions and numerical simulations, we show that erosional continuity predicts the form of flux steady-state landscapes that develop in simulations with horizontally layered rocks. For stream power erosion, the nature of continuity steady state depends on the exponent, n, in the erosion model. For n = 1, the landscape cannot maintain continuity. For cases where n ≠ 1, continuity is maintained, and steepness is a function of erodibility that is predicted by the theory. The landscape in continuity steady state can be quite different from that predicted by topographic steady state. For n < 1 continuity predicts that channels incising subhorizontal layers will be steeper in the weaker rock layers. For subhorizontal layered rocks with different erodibilities, continuity also predicts larger slope contrasts than in topographic steady state. Therefore, the relationship between steepness and erodibility within a sequence of layered rocks is a function of contact dip. For the subhorizontal limit, the history of layers exposed at base level also influences the steepness–erodibility relationship. If uplift rate is constant, continuity steady state is perturbed near base level, but these perturbations decay rapidly if there is a substantial contrast in erodibility. Though examples explored here utilize the stream power erosion model, continuity steady state provides a general mathematical tool that may also be useful to understand landscapes that develop by other erosion processes.

Short summary
Concepts of landscape equilibrium often enable the interpretation of landscape response to various forces. However, we demonstrate that standard conceptions of landscape equilibrium do not apply in layered rocks. We develop a more general mathematical description of steady state based on a constraint of land surface continuity. In the case of rock layers that are nearly horizontal, this continuity steady state makes substantially different predictions about the nature of equilibrium landscapes.