11 June 2010

River landscape evolution

Posted by Callan Bentley

I’ve developed a little cartoon diagram to show four stages of river landscape evolution. I use this image in Physical Geology when discussing how running water erodes the land. Check it out:

river evolution table

There are two rows, and four columns. The columns are the four stages of river landscape evolution: youth, maturity, old age, and rejuvenation. The rows offer different perspectives on the landscape: the upper row is a map view, and the lower row is a cross-sectional view.

The first two columns are shown here in more detail:

river evolution table1

When they are young, rivers ideally start out relatively straight in map view, entrenched in V-shaped valleys. You’ll also find plenty of waterfalls and rapids at this “Youth” stage. As time goes by, the river erodes downward to base level, and loses the gravitational impetus to incise any deeper. The river now begins to meander side to side, and as it does so, enlarges the size of its valley by lateral erosion at cut banks. It is “Mature.” As time goes by, the valley walls get further and further apart. …Then what?

river evolution table2

If enough time goes by, the river can enlarge the size of its valley so much that you can’t really tell it’s a valley any more. At this stage, meandering can get pronounced enough to fold back on itself and create oxbow lakes (visible in the map view of the “Old Age” stage). The story could conceivably end here. However, if base level were to drop anew, the river will begin to incise again, producing a valley profile (cross-section) that looks pretty much identical to the “Youth” stage. It has been made young again, or “Rejuvenated.” In map view, however, you can see from the meandering shape of the re-incised valley that the river must once have been at the “Old Age” stage. There are no more oxbow lakes in the “Rejuvenated” stage, as the river’s energy is going into downcutting rather than lateral meandering.

My experience is that this nice neat sequence works as a conceptual model for Physical Geology students. Nature, of course, is more complicated, but this serves me well as a foundational framework. What do you think? Is this scheme appropriate for an introductory audience, or is it too simple?