Mass balance, grade, and adjustment timescales in bedrock channels

Turowski, Jens Martin

Rivers are dynamical systems that are thought to evolve towards a steady-state configuration. Then, geomorphic parameters, such as channel width and slope, are constant over time. In the mathematical description of the system, the steady state corresponds to a fixed point in the dynamic equations in which all time derivatives are equal to zero. In alluvial rivers, steady state is characterized by grade. This can be expressed as a so-called order principle: an alluvial river evolves to achieve a state in which sediment transport is constant along the river channel and is equal to transport capacity everywhere. In bedrock rivers, steady state is thought to be achieved with a balance between channel incision and uplift. The corresponding order principle is the following: a bedrock river evolves to achieve a vertical bedrock incision rate that is equal to the uplift rate or base-level lowering rate. In the present work, considerations of process physics and of the mass balance of a bedrock channel are used to argue that bedrock rivers evolve to achieve both grade and a balance between channel incision and uplift. As such, bedrock channels are governed by two order principles. As a consequence, the recognition of a steady state with respect to one of them does not necessarily imply an overall steady state. For further discussion of the bedrock channel evolution towards a steady state, expressions for adjustment timescales are sought. For this, a mechanistic model for lateral erosion of bedrock channels is developed, which allows one to obtain analytical solutions for the adjustment timescales for the morphological variables of channel width, channel bed slope, and alluvial bed cover. The adjustment timescale to achieve steady cover is of the order of minutes to days, while the adjustment timescales for width and slope are of the order of thousands of years. Thus, cover is adjusted quickly in response to a change in boundary conditions to achieve a graded state. The resulting change in vertical and lateral incision rates triggers a slow adjustment of width and slope, which in turn affects bed cover. As a result of these feedbacks, it can be expected that a bedrock channel is close to a graded state most of the time, even when it is transiently adjusting its bedrock channel morphology.



Turowski, Jens Martin: Mass balance, grade, and adjustment timescales in bedrock channels. 2020. Copernicus Publications.


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