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Carving Grand Canyon’s inner gorge: A test of steady incision versus rapid knickzone migration

July 26, 2018

A recent study posits that much of the 240-m-deep inner gorge of Grand Canyon was carved between 500 and 400 ka via passage of a migrating knickzone with incision rates of ~1600 m/Ma during that time period; this was based on dating of a ca. 500 ka travertine deposit perched on the rim of the inner gorge, near Hermit Rapid, and a ca. 400 ka travertine drape that extends to within 60 m of river level nearby. However, a new U/Th age of 517 ± 13 ka on the same travertine drape challenges this model of a migrating knickzone and punctuated incision. The presence of ca. 500 ka travertine just 95 m above river level requires that most of the inner gorge was carved before that time. The resulting maximum bedrock incision rate of 230 m/Ma is consistent with independent results from sites up and downstream and with models for semi-steady Quaternary bedrock incision and dispels problems with the transient incision model. Downstream from the Hermit Rapid area, dikes present on both sides of the canyon have been used to support the migrating knickzone model. We report a new 40Ar/39Ar age of 517 ± 16 ka on one of these dikes, but argue that they don’t necessarily gauge incision.

Field observations suggest that the discontinuous travertine deposits, near Hermit Rapid, were deposited by springs that emanated from the Redwall-Muav aquifer, mantled the Tonto Platform, and locally built downwards into the inner gorge and tributary canyons. The range of U/Th ages from ca. 10–600 ka suggests these were long-lived spring systems. The travertine cements predominantly angular to subrounded locally derived clasts consistent with deposition on hillslopes and by tributaries. Well-rounded gravels are exceedingly rare but have been used to suggest that the Colorado River was at the rim of the inner gorge at ca. 500 ka. No exotic Colorado River clasts, derived from the area outside of Grand Canyon, were observed by us. In-place gravel from the main stem or tributaries (e.g., from paleo–Hermit Creek) within the travertine deposits can be reconciled with existing data, if: (1) travertine was deposited at ca. 2 Ma, which is approximately when the steady incision model suggests the inner gorge began to incise; (2) a 500 ka lava dam in the Lava Falls Rapid area, 140 km downstream, backed water and sediment up to the rim of the inner gorge in the Hermit area; or (3) regional climate-driven aggradation took place at 500 ka.